Monday, October 30, 2017

Nuclear Safety Culture Under Assault: DNFSB Chairman Proposes Eliminating the Board

DNFSB headquarters
The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) recently published a report* that disclosed a private letter** from Sean Sullivan, the Chairman of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) to the Director of the Office of Management and Budget in which the chairman proposed abolishing or downsizing the DNFSB.  The CPI is highly critical of the chairman’s proposals; support for their position includes a list of the safety improvements in the Department of Energy (DOE) complex that have resulted from DNFSB recommendations and the safety challenges that DOE facilities continue to face.

The CPI also cites a 2014 National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA, the DOE sub-organization that oversees the nuclear weapons facilities) internal report that describes NNSA’s own safety culture weaknesses, e.g., lack of a questioning attitude toward contractor management’s performance claims, with respect to its oversight of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The CPI believes the chairman is responding to pressure from the private contractors who actually manage DOE facilities to reduce outside interference in, and oversight of, contractor activities.  That’s certainly plausible.  The contractors get paid regardless of their level of performance, and very little of that pay is tied to safety performance.  DNFSB recommendations and reports can be thorns in the sides of contractor management.

The Sullivan Letter

The primary proposal in the Sullivan letter is to abolish the DNFSB because the DOE has developed its own “robust regulatory structure” and oversight capabilities via the Office of Enterprise Assessments.  That’s a hollow rationale; the CPI report discusses the insufficiency of DOE’s own assessments.  If outright elimination is not politically doable then DNFSB personnel could be transferred to DOE, sustaining the appearance of independent oversight, and then be slowly absorbed into the larger DOE organization.  That is not a path to increased public confidence and looks like being assimilated by the Borg.***  The savings that could be realized from abolishing the DNFSB is estimated at $31 million, a number lost in the decimal dust of DOE’s $30+ billion budget.

Sullivan mentions but opposes transferring the DNFSB’s oversight responsibilities to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  Why?  Because the NRC is not only independent, it has enforcement powers which would be inappropriate for defense nuclear facilities and might compromise national security.  That’s a red herring but we’ll let it go; we don’t think oversight of defense facilities really meshes with the NRC’s mission.

His secondary proposal is to downsize the DNFSB workforce, especially its management structure, and transfer most of the survivors to specific defense facilities.  While we think DNFSB needs more resources, not fewer, it would be better if more DNFSB personnel were located in the field, keeping track of and reporting on DOE and contractor activities.

Our Perspective

Safetymatters first became interested in the DNFSB when we saw the growing mess at the Waste Treatment Plant (WTP, aka the Vit Plant) in Hanford, WA.  It was the DNFSB who forced the DOE and its WTP contractors to confront and remediate serious nuclear safety culture (NSC) problems.  We have published multiple reports on the resultant foot-dragging by DOE in its responses to DNFSB Recommendation 2011-1 which addressed safety conscious work environment (SCWE) problems at Hanford and other DOE facilities.  Click on the DOE label to see our offerings on WTP, other DOE facilities and the overall DOE complex.
We have reported on the NSC problems at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico.  The DNFSB has played an important role in attempting to get DOE and the WIPP contractor to strengthen their safety practices.  Click the WIPP label to see our WIPP-related posts. 

We have also covered a report on the DNFSB’s own organizational issues, including board members’ meddling in day-to-day activities, weak leadership and too-frequent organizational changes.  See our Feb. 6, 2015 post for details.

DNFSB’s internal issues notwithstanding, the board plays an indispensible role in strengthening NSC and safety practices throughout the DOE complex.  They should be given greater authority (which won’t happen), stronger leadership and additional resources.

Bottom line: Sullivan’s proposal is just plain nuts.  He’s a Republican appointee so maybe he’s simply offering homage to his ultimate overlord.

*  P. Malone and R.J. Smith, “GOP chair of nuclear safety agency secretly urges Trump to abolish it,” The Center for Public Integrity (Oct. 19, 2017).  Retrieved Oct. 26, 2017.

**  S. Sullivan (DNFSB) to J.M Mulvaney (Management and Budget), no subject specified but described as an “initial high-level draft of [an] Agency Reform Plan” (June 29, 2019).  Available from the CPI in html and pdf format.  Retrieved Oct. 26, 2017.

***  The Borg is an alien group entity in Star Trek that forcibly assimilates other beings.  See Wikipedia for more information.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Nuclear Safety Culture: A Suggestion for Integrating “Just Culture” Concepts

All of you have heard of “Just Culture” (JC).  At heart, it is an attitude toward investigating and explaining errors that occur in organizations in terms of “why” an error occurred, including systemic reasons, rather than focusing on identifying someone to blame.  How might JC be applied in practice?  A paper* by Shem Malmquist describes how JC concepts could be used in the early phases of an investigation to mitigate cognitive bias on the part of the investigators.

The author asserts that “cognitive bias has a high probability of occurring, and becoming integrated into the investigators subconscious during the early stages of an accident investigation.” 

He recommends that, from the get-go, investigators categorize all pertinent actions that preceded the error as an error (unintentional act), at-risk behavior (intentional but for a good reason) or reckless (conscious disregard of a substantial risk or intentional rule violation). (p. 5)  For errors or at-risk actions, the investigator should analyze the system, e.g., policies, procedures, training or equipment, for deficiencies; for reckless behavior, the investigator should determine what system components, if any, broke down and allowed the behavior to occur. (p. 12).  Individuals should still be held responsible for deliberate actions that resulted in negative consequences.

Adding this step to a traditional event chain model will enrich the investigation and help keep investigators from going down the rabbit hole of following chains suggested by their own initial biases.

Because JC is added to traditional investigation techniques, Malmquist believes it might be more readily accepted than other approaches for conducting more systemic investigations, e.g., Leveson’s System Theoretic Accident Model and Processes (STAMP).  Such approaches are complex, require lots of data and implementing them can be daunting for even experienced investigators.  In our opinion, these models usually necessitate hiring model experts who may be the only ones who can interpret the ultimate findings—sort of like an ancient priest reading the entrails of a sacrificial animal.  Snide comment aside, we admire Leveson’s work and reviewed it in our Nov. 11, 2013 post.

Our Perspective

This paper is not some great new insight into accident investigation but it does describe an incremental step that could make traditional investigation methods more expansive in outlook and robust in their findings.

The paper also provides a simple introduction to the works of authors who cover JC or decision-making biases.  The former category includes Reason and Dekker and the latter one Kahneman, all of whom we have reviewed here at Safetymatters.  For Reason, see our Nov. 3, 2014 post; for Dekker, see our Aug. 3, 2009 and Dec. 5, 2012 posts; for Kahneman, see our Nov. 4, 2011 and Dec. 18, 2013 posts.

Bottom line: The parts describing and justifying the author’s proposed approach are worth reading.  You are already familiar with much of the contextual material he includes.  

*  S. Malmquist, “Just Culture Accident Model – JCAM” (June 2017).

Friday, October 6, 2017

WANO and NEA to Cooperate on Nuclear Safety Culture

World Nuclear News Oct. 4, 2017
According to an item* in World Nuclear News, the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) signed a memorandum of understanding to cooperate on "the further development of approaches, practices and methods in order to proactively strengthen global nuclear safety."

One objective is to “enhance the common understanding of nuclear safety culture challenges . . .”  In addition, the parties have identified safety culture (SC) as a "fundamental subject of common interest" and plan to launch a series of "country-specific discussions to explore the influence of national culture on the safety culture".

Our Perspective

As usual, the press release touts all the benefits that are going to flow from the new relationship.  We predict the flow will be at best a trickle based on what we’ve seen from the principals over the years.  Following is our take on the two entities.

WANO is an association of the world's nuclear power operators.  Their objective is to exchange safety knowledge and operating experience among its members.  We have mentioned WANO in several Safetymatters posts, including Jan. 23, 2015, Jan. 7, 2015, Jan. 21, 2014 and May 1, 2010.  Their public contributions are generally shallow and insipid.  WANO may be effective at facilitating information sharing but it has no real authority over operators.  It is, however, an overhead cost for the economically uncompetitive commercial nuclear industry. 

NEA is an intergovernmental agency that facilitates cooperation among countries with nuclear technology infrastructures.  In our March 3, 2016 post we characterized NEA as an “empty suit” that produces cheerleading and blather.  We stand by that assessment.  In Safetymatters’ history, we have come across only one example of NEA adding value—when they published a document that encouraged regulators to take a systems view of SC.  See our Feb. 10, 2016 post for details.

No one should expect this new arrangement to lead to any breakthroughs in SC theory or insights into SC practice.  It will lead to meetings, conferences, workshops and boondoggles.  One hopes it doesn’t indirectly raise the industry’s costs or, more importantly, distract WANO from its core mission of sharing safety information and operating experience across the international nuclear industry. 

*  “WANO, NEA enhance cooperation in nuclear safety,” World Nuclear News (Oct. 4, 2017).