Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Learning About Nuclear Safety Culture from the Web, Maybe

The Internet  Source:Wikipedia
We’ve come across some Internet content (one website, one article) that purports to inform the reader about nuclear safety culture (NSC).  This post reviews the content and provides our perspective on its value.

NSC Website

It appears the title of this site is “Nuclear Safety Culture”* and the primary target is journalists who want an introduction to NSC concepts, history and issues.  It is a product of a group of European entities.  It is a professional looking site that covers four major topics; we’ll summarize them in some detail to show their wide scope and shallow depth. 

Nuclear Safety Culture covers five sub-topics:

History traces the shift in attitudes toward and protection from ionizing radiation as the possible consequences became better known but the story ends in the 1950s.  Key actions describe the roles of internal and external stakeholders during routine operations and emergency situations.  The focus is on power production although medicine, industrial uses and weapons are also mentioned.  Definition of NSC starts with INSAG (esp. INSAG-4), then adds INPO’s directive to emphasize safety over competing goals, and a familiar list of attributes from the Nuclear Safety Journal.  As usual, there is nothing in the attributes about executive compensation or the importance of a systems view.  IAEA safety principles are self explanatory.  Key scientific concepts cover the units of radiation for dose, intake and exposure.  Some values are shown for typical activities but only one legal limit, for US airport X-rays, is included.**  There is no information in this sub-topic on how much radiation a person can tolerate or the regulatory limits for industrial exposure.

From Events to Accidents has two sub-topics:

From events to accidents describes the 7-level International Nuclear Event Scale (from a minor anomaly to major accident) but the scale itself is not shown.  This is a major omission.  Defence in depth discusses this important concept but provides only one example, the levels of physical protection between a fuel rod in a reactor and the environment outside the containment.

Controversies has two sub-topics:

Strengths and Weaknesses discuss some of the nuclear industry’s issues and characteristics: industry transparency is a double-edge sword, where increased information on events may be used to criticize a plant owner; general radiation protection standards for the industry; uncertainties surrounding the health effects of low radiation doses; the usual nuclear waste issues; technology evolution through generations of reactors; stress tests for European reactors; supply chain realities where a problem anywhere is used against the entire industry; the political climate, focusing on Germany and France; and energy economics that have diminished nuclear’s competitiveness.  Overall, this is a hodgepodge of topics and a B- discussion.  The human factor provides a brief discussion of the “blame culture” and the need for a systemic view, followed by summaries of the Korean and French document falsification events.

Stories summarizes three events: the Brazilian theft of a radioactive source, Chernobyl and Fukushima.  They are all reported in an overly dramatic style although the basic facts are probably correct.

The authors describe what they call the “safety culture breach” for each event.  The problem is they comingle overarching cultural issues, e.g., TEPCO’s overconfident management, with far more specific failures, e.g., violations of safety and security rules, and consequences of weak NSC, e.g., plant design inadequacies.  It makes one wonder if the author(s) of this section have a clear notion of what NSC is.

It isn’t apparent how helpful this site will be for newbie journalists, it is certainly not a complete “toolkit.”  Some topics are presented in an over-simplified manner and others are missing key figures.  In terms of examples, the site emphasizes major accidents (the ultimate trailing indicators) and ignores the small events, normalization of deviance, organizational drift and other dynamics that make up the bulk of daily life in an organization.  Overall, the toolkit looks a bit like a rush job or unedited committee work, e.g., the section on the major accidents is satisfactory but others are incomplete.  Importantly (or perhaps thankfully) the authors offer no original observations or insights with respect to NSC.  It’s worrisome that what the site creators call NSC is often just the safety practices that evolved as the hazards of radiation became better known. 

NSC Article

There is an article on NSC in the online version of Power magazine.  We are not publishing a link to the article because it isn’t very good; it looks more like a high schooler’s Internet-sourced term paper than a thoughtful reference or essay on NSC.

However, like the stopped clock that shows the correct time twice per day, there can be a worthwhile nugget in such an article.  After summarizing a research paper that correlated plants’ performance indicators with assessments of their NSC attributes (which paper we reviewed on Oct. 5, 2014), the author says “There are no established thresholds for determining whether a safety culture is “healthy” or “unhealthy.””  That’s correct.  After NSC assessors consolidate their interviews, focus groups, observations, surveys and document reviews, they always identify some improvement opportunities but the usual overall grade is “pass.”***  There’s no point score, meter or gauge.  Perhaps there should be.

Our Perspective

Don’t waste your time with pap.  Go to primary sources; an excellent starting point is the survey of NSC literature performed by a U.S. National Laboratory (which we reviewed on Feb. 10, 2013.)  Click on our References label to get other possibilities and follow folks who actually know something about NSC, like Safetymatters.


Nuclear Safety Culture was developed as part of the NUSHARE project under the aegis of the European Nuclear Education Network.   Retrieved June 19, 2017.

**  The airport X-ray limit happens to be the same as the amount of radiation emitted by an ordinary banana.

***  A violation of the Safety Conscious Work Environment (SCWE) regulations is quite different.  There it’s zero tolerance and if there’s a credible complaint about actual retaliation for raising a safety issue, the licensee is in deep doo-doo until they convince the regulator they have made the necessary adjustments in the work environment.

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