Wednesday, May 10, 2017

A Nordic Compendium on Nuclear Safety Culture

A new research paper* covers the challenges of establishing and improving nuclear safety culture (NSC) in a dynamic, i.e., project, environment.  The authors are Finnish and Swedish and it appears the problems of the Olkiluoto 3 plant inform their research interests.  Their summary and review of current NSC literature is of interest to us. 

They begin with an overall description of how organizational (and cultural) changes can occur in terms of direction, rate and scale.

Direction

Top-down (or planned) change relies on the familiar unfreeze-change-refreeze models of Kurt Lewin and Ed Schein.  Bottom-up (or emergent) change emphasizes self-organization and organizational learning.  Truly free form, unguided change leads to NSC being an emergent property of the organization.  As we know, the top-down approach is seldom, if ever, 100% effective because of frictional losses, unintended consequences or the impact of competing, emergent cultural currents.  In a nod to a systems perspective, the authors note organizational structures and behavior influence (and are influenced by) culture.

Rate

“Organizational change can also be distinguished by the rate of its occurrence, i.e, whether the change occurs abruptly or smoothly [italics added].” (p. 8)  We observe that most nuclear plants try to build on past success, hence they promote “continuous improvement” programs that don’t rattle the organization.  In contrast, a plant with major NSC problems sometimes receives shock treatment, often in the form of a new senior manager who is expected to clean things up.  New management systems and organizational structures can also cause abrupt change.

Scale

The authors identify four levels of change.  Most operating plants exhibit the least disruptive changes, called fine tuning and incremental adjustmentModular transformation attempts to change culture at the department level; corporate transformation is self-explanatory. 

The authors sound a cautionary note: “the more radical types of changes might not be easily initiated – or might not even be feasible, considering that safety culture is by nature a slowly and progressively changing phenomenon. The obvious condition where a safety-critical organization requires radical changes to its safety culture is when it is unacceptably unhealthy.” (p. 9)

Culture Change Strategies

The authors list seven specific strategies for improving NSC:

  • Change organizational structures,
  • Modify the behavior of a target group through, e.g. incentives and positive reinforcement,
  • Improve interaction and communication to build a shared culture,
  • Ensure all organizational members are committed to safety and jointly participate in its improvement,
  • Training,
  • Promote the concept and importance of NSC,
  • Recruit and select employees who will support a strong NSC.
This section includes a literature review for examples of the specific strategies.

Project Organizations

The nature of project organizations is discussed in detail including their time pressures, wide use of teams, complex tasks and a context of a temporary organization in a relatively permanent environment.  The authors observe that “in temporary organisations, the threat of prioritizing “production” over safety may occur more naturally than in permanent organizations.” (pp. 16-17)  Projects are not limited to building new plants; as we have seen, large projects (Crystal River containment penetration, SONGS steam generator replacement) can kill operating plants.

The balance of the paper covers the authors’ empirical work.

Our Perspective 


This is a useful paper because it provides a good summary of the host of approaches and methods that have been (and are being) applied in the NSC space.  That said, the authors offer no new insights into NSC practice.

Although the paper’s focus is on projects, basically new plant construction, people responsible for fixing NSC at problem plants, e.g., Watts Bar, should peruse this report for lessons they can apply that might help achieve the step function NSC improvements such plants need.


*  K.Viitanen, N. Gotcheva and C. Rollenhagen, “Safety Culture Assurance and Improvement Methods in Complex Projects – Intermediate Report from the NKS-R SC AIM” (Feb. 2017).  Thanks to Aili Hunt of the LinkedIn Nuclear Safety Culture group for publicizing this paper.

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