Thursday, March 1, 2012

Reflections on the Vit Plant's New Safety Culture Manager: Full Steam Ahead or Time for DOE to Consider a New Plan B?

(Ed. note: Here's a new essay on the Vit Plant by Bill Mullins.  In an era of sound bites and tweets, we provide a forum where complete ideas can be aired.  Please contact us if you would like to contribute.)

Hanford Contractor Hires New Safety Culture ManagerOregon Public Broadcasting News 2/8/12

Strange Circumstance: The Safetymatters readership may already have checked out the above item with its announcement of the latest move by the Bechtel National (BNI) management team for the “fast-track, design-build” contract at the Hanford Waste Treatment Plant (WTP).

Reviewing the announcement of Ward Sproat’s assignment to a newly created position “Safety Culture Manager” it seemed appropriate to make a few comments on what a strange turn of affairs this seems to be in what is already a very strange circumstance.
In its Recommendation 2011-1, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) “determined that the prevailing safety culture at the Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant (WTP) is flawed and effectively defeats [DOE Nuclear Safety Policy].”
No previous DNFSB Recommendation has addressed the issue of Nuclear Safety Culture (NSC) and its raising in the far-from-typical circumstance of the WTP contract represents a significant oversight policy challenge for DOE. DOE’s Implementation Plan makes substantial enterprise-wide commitments on the basis of this single exemplar.

Testing Nuclear Safety Culture: The 2011-1 finding arose in the midst of an already contentious WTP setting involving formal nuclear safety “whistle-blower” complaints and a DNFSB formal investigation of the surrounding circumstances. Equally significant is the fact that the WTP project is significantly troubled by questions of technology readiness levels in the key Pretreatment processes. BNI’s contract contains a $100M incentive for early start of waste treatment in the WTP.
One might conclude that the notion of NSC, for all the advocacy of its importance across the global nuclear energy enterprise, is receiving a significant baptism of fire at the WTP. The selection of Mr. Sproat, and the position created for him, allows some reflection upon a key attribute – Leadership – of NSC conventional wisdom.
There appears to be broad consensus that Leadership is important to effective NSC. From the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) we have this statement of NSC trait:
“Leadership Safety Values and Actions – Leaders demonstrate a commitment to safety in their decisions and behaviors.”
Similar statements are found in INPO, IAEA and NEI standards on NSC; of interest here is: To what extent does the Leadership norm inform the selection criteria for Mr. Sproat?
Competence Commensurate: At this juncture in the River Protection Program there is a large body of opinion pointing to “Nuclear Safety Culture” as a normative factor that is implicated in difficulties managing the acquisition of the Waste Treatment Plant under DOE’s contract with Bechtel National. On the record, views range from “defective until demonstrated otherwise” (DNFSB); to sanguine (DOE Safety Oversight); to confident about improvement (Bechtel sponsored Independent Safety and Quality Culture Team).
As a framework for assessing the BNI appointment I’m using the DOE’s Integrated Safety Management (ISM) Doctrine (cf. DOE P 450.4A). The ISM Doctrine encompasses NSC.
ISM Guiding Principle #3 states:
“COMPETENCE COMMENSURATE WITH RESPONSIBILITIES.  Personnel possess the experience, knowledge, skills, and abilities that are necessary to discharge their responsibilities."
Given the BNI action to bring Mr. Sproat’s relevant experience to bear on the WTP challenges it seems reasonable to assess his “Competence commensurate with responsibilities” for NSC leadership, and how that relates to the identified needs for WTP project improvement. Stated differently, does the appointment of Mr. Sproat indicate BNI understands what is expected by way of WTP performance improvement?
Determination of Competence: Mr. Sproat has clearly held positions of substantial responsibility; in the near past he was the Presidential Appointee in DOE responsible for development of the Yucca Mountain Repository license application to the NRC – this too was work DOE contracted to Bechtel. Now, one must ask: How does executive experience with preparing a highly structured NRC license application for a geological repository relate to the development of a DOE Authorization Basis for a High Level Liquid Waste treatment facility of very uncertain feasibility?
Mr. Sproat’s experience with DOE projects has been outside the domain of the Environmental Management Program to which the Hanford Tank Waste belongs. Similarly, he appears to have limited experience with Federal Facilities Compliance Agreements which govern major RCRA actions such as the WTP; likewise his knowledge of the DOE practice of nuclear facility “regulation by contract” would appear to be indirect at best. These shortfalls of direct experience will likely make for a steep learning curve.
Mr. Sprout undoubtedly has leadership capacity, but is it relevant to the WTP acquisition? Can DOE rely upon his judgment regarding his fitness for leadership in this very troubled circumstance? As I understand the sense of the several authoritative NSC standards, the importance of “nuclear safety as an over-riding priority” would seem to create a considerable premium on direct experience when the project involved is well outside the “typical” nuclear facility setting – as is the WTP.
The significantly atypical character of the WTP would thus suggest that the assessment of Mr. Sproat’s fit to the challenge should be made by someone who is intimate with the project. Reporting at such a high level, this person would seem to be the BNI Project Manager Mr. Russo, perhaps with the aid of some key reports.
BNI’s Judgment of Fitness: For an assessment of the BNI judgment of Competence Commensurate with Responsibilities, consider Mr. Russo’s announcement of Mr. Sproat’s assignment. Therein, Mr. Russo portrays the January 2012 report of the DOE Office of Health, Security and Safety’s follow up review of safety culture for the WTP project. He observes: “The HSS report is particularly important because it is from the perspective of DOE. As such, it represents the knowledge and experience of the entire weapons complex.” This would not appear to be the case.
At the HSS Report Section 2.2 Scope and Methods we find:
“The applied framework was the one recently described by the NRC. The evaluation was conducted using the same methodology that aligns with the current NRC procedures for independent safety culture assessment.
“The safety culture components important for the existence of a healthy safety culture within a nuclear facility have been identified (INSAG-15, 2002; Institute of Nuclear Power Operations Principles for a Strong Nuclear Safety Culture, 2004; NRC Inspection Manual 0305, 2006). The NRC and its stakeholders have recently agreed upon nine traits that are viewed as necessary in promoting a positive safety culture…
“While the methodology used in this evaluation was based upon work originally developed with the support of the NRC to assess the influence of organization and management on safety performance, the methodology has also been effectively implemented in non-nuclear organizations, such as mining, health care, research, engineering, and transportation.”
Several observations are in order at this point:
•    The analytical framework of this evaluation is taken from a commercial vendor’s standard process. This framework was developed in 1991 at Brookhaven National Laboratory for the US NRC. The principals of the contractor Human Performance Analysis Corporation (HPAC)  were developers of the methodology which is used in a variety of high consequence circumstances and is not particularly tailored to any of the NRC, IAEA, INPO, or other safety culture developments since the inception of the current Reactor Oversight Process in 1999.
•    While the work in 1991 was advanced for its time, there is a case to be made that the “enterprise culture construct” employed then has become obsolescent – at least as far as the civilian nuclear power enterprise is concerned. HPAC cites as reference a culture model developed by Edgar Schein many years before 1991. As recently as 2003 Dr. Schein, in an address to the INPO CEOs on the subject of managing culture change employed a very different construct – he did not use the term “safety culture” in that talk; rather he characterized enterprise culture as emergent of all performance aspects (i.e. production and protection) at the interface of the various distinct professional cultures (executives, engineers, operators, maintainers) where work is planned.
•    While giving lip-service to its definition, neither the HSS Report nor the HPAC Appendix (a separate report from the same assessment data sets) reflects the DOE Safety Culture standard developed jointly in 2009/10 by DOE and Energy Facility Contractors Group (EFCOG). This is significant because the definition of Safety Culture in that work takes shape from the DOE’s Integrated Safety Management Policy and Doctrine – if differs markedly from virtually all NRC and other definitions in that it is not a “safety first” framework (i.e. “overriding priority given to nuclear safety).
•    There is no indication that any of the various Safety Culture assessment and improvement approaches draw upon experience with one-of-a-kind technology development, a multi-facility complex design, process challenged dominated by physical chemistry not radiological concerns, and systematization on a scale unprecedented since the Manhattan project – if even then.
On these bases, Mr. Russo’s contention that the HSS review is indicative of DOE complex-wide expectations for Safety Culture is misplaced.
Finding the Glitch: What can be expected from Mr. Sproat would seem to follow from how valuable his NSC relevant experience will be in curing the misalignment of two professional organizations “facility design” and “safety analysis.” These organizations – one headed by a senior management whistle-blower on this project – have been working for some years to conflicted objectives.
“For the WTP project, DOE decided to implement a “design-build” approach in which significant construction efforts are undertaken in parallel with the design efforts. The goal of this approach was to complete the WTP sooner, thus allowing DOE to meet milestones for addressing tank waste hazards and reducing the environmental and safety risks associated with the hazardous wastes in the tank.”
This statement fails to fully illuminate that fact that it is universally understood in the world of large project acquisition, that “design-build” efforts are only prudently employed in circumstances of high certainty from past precedent both in terms of design, construction methods, resource availability, and other such uncertainty-stabilizing factors. None of these conditions ever pertained in the instance of the WTP.
The over-arching conclusion of the HSS review seems to be this:
“While there is no fear of retaliation in the ORP (including DOE-WTP) work environment, there is a definite unwillingness and uncertainty among employees about the ability to openly challenge management decisions. There are definite perceptions that there is not an environment conducive to raising concerns or where management wants or willingly listens to concerns. Most employees also believe that constructive criticism is not encouraged.”
Like the several other reports on the record this conclusion tells the “What” of the challenge, but not the “Why.”
Conclusion: In the latest HSS Report’s many pages of recommendations it seems clear that conditions observed have not improved much from those of 12 -24 months earlier. While there is plenty of room for improvement on the DOE side of the ledger, it is difficult to avoid a conclusion that the appointment of Mr. Sproat, and his arrival’s announcement by Mr. Russo, suggest that BNI still sees the unresolved design and technology development challenges as “punch-list items.”
For BNI, even in the midst of the prolonged “safety culture” uproar, it appears the many disparate review results still comprise a “Full Steam Ahead” matter to be resolved by top-down command and control management methods.  I wish them luck with that – to DOE I suggest looking toward a radical Plan B.

(Mr. Mullins is a Principal at Better Choices Consulting.)

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