Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Vermont Yankee (part 3)

There was an interesting article in the March 22, 2010 Hartford Courant regarding Paul Blanch, the former Northeast Utilities engineer who was in the middle of safety issues at Millstone in the 1990s. Specifically he was in the news due to his recent testimony against the extension of the operating license for Vermont Yankee. But what caught my eye was some of his broader observations regarding safety and the nuclear industry. Regarding the industry, Blanch states, "Safety is not their No. 1 concern," he said. "Making money is their No. 1 concern." He goes on to say he has no faith in the NRC, or utilities’ commitment to safety.

Bringing attention to these comments is important not because one may agree or disagree with them. They are significant because they represent a perception of the industry, and the NRC for that matter, that can and does get attention. One problem is that everyone says safety is their highest priority but then certain events suggest otherwise - as an example, let’s look at another company and industry recently in the news:

From the BP website:

Safe and reliable operations are BP’s number one priority....

This is from a company that was recently fined over $3 million by OSHA for safety violations at its Ohio refinery (see our March 12, 2010 post) and had previously been fined almost $90 million for the explosion at its Texas refinery.

Supporting this commitment is the following description of safety management at BP:

“...members of the executive team undertook site visits, in which safety was a focus, to reinforce the importance of their commitment to safe and reliable operations. The executives also regularly included safety and operations issues in video broadcasts and communications to employees, townhall meetings and messages to senior leaders.“

It is hardly unreasonable that someone could have a perception that BP’s highest priority was not safety. Unfortunately almost those identical words can also be found in the statements and pronouncements of many nuclear utilities. (By the way the narrow emphasis by BP management on “reinforcement” might be considered in the context of our post dated March 22, 2010 on Safety Culture Dynamics.)

As Dr. Reason has noted so simply, no organization is just in the business of being safe. What might be much more beneficial is some better acknowledgment of the tension between safety and production (and cost and schedule) and how nuclear organizations are able to address it. This awareness is a more credible posture for public perception, for regulators and for the organization itself. It would also highlight the insight that many have in the nuclear industry - that safety and reliable production are actually tightly coupled - that over the long term they must coexist. The irony may be that I recall 20 years ago Entergy was the leader in publicizing (and achieving) their goals to be upper quartile in safety, production and cost.

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