Friday, August 12, 2011

An Anthropologist’s View

Academics in many disciplines study safety culture.  This post introduces to this blog the work of an MIT anthropologist, Constance Perin, and discusses a paper* she presented at the 2005 ANS annual meeting.

We picked a couple of the paper’s key recommendations to share with you.  First, Perin’s main point is to advocate the development of a “significance culture” in nuclear power plant organizations.  The idea is to organize knowledge and data in a manner that allows an organization to determine significance with respect to safety issues.  The objective is to increase an organization’s capabilities to recognize and evaluate questionable conditions before they can escalate risk.  We generally agree with this aim.  The real nub of safety culture effectiveness is how it shapes the way an organization responds to new or changing situations.

Perin understands that significance evaluation already occurs in both formal processes (e.g., NRC evaluations and PRAs) and in the more informal world of operational decisions, where trade-offs, negotiations, and satisficing behavior may be more dynamic and less likely to be completely rational.  She recommends that significance evaluation be ascribed a higher importance, i.e., be more formally and widely ingrained in the overall plant culture, and used as an organizing principle for defining knowledge-creating processes. 

Second, because of the importance of a plant's Corrective Action Program (CAP), Perin proposes making NRC assessment of the CAP the “eighth cornerstone” of the Reactor Oversight Process (ROP).  She criticizes the NRC’s categorization of cross cutting issues for not being subjected to specific criteria and performance indicators.  We have a somewhat different view.  Perin’s analysis does not acknowledge that the industry places great emphasis on each of the cross cutting issues in terms of performance indicators and monitoring including self assessment.**  It is also common to the other cornerstones where the plants use many more indicators to track and trend performance than the few included in the ROP.  In our opinion, a real problem with the ROP is that its few indicators do not provide any reliable or forward looking picture of nuclear safety. 

The fault line in the CAP itself may better be characterized in terms of the lack of measurement and assessment of how well the CAP program functions to sustain a strong safety culture.  Importantly such an approach would evaluate how decisions on conditions adverse to quality properly assessed not only significance, but balanced the influence of any competing priorities.  Perin also recognizes that competing priorities exist, especially in the operational world, but making the CAP a cornerstone might actually lead to increased false confidence in the CAP if its relationship with safety culture was left unexamined.

Prof. Perin has also written a book, Shouldering Risks: The Culture of Control in the Nuclear Power Industry,*** which is an ethnographic analysis of nuclear organizations and specific events they experienced.  We will be reviewing this book in a future post.  We hope that her detailed drill down on those events will yield some interesting insights, e.g., how different parts of an organization looked at the same situation but had differing evaluations of its risk implications.

We have to admit we didn’t detect Prof. Perin on our radar screen; she alerted us to the presence of her work.  Based on our limited review to date, we think we share similar perspectives on the challenges involved in attaining and maintaining a robust safety culture.

*  C. Perin, “Significance Culture in Nuclear Installations,” a paper presented at the 2005 Annual Meeting of the American Nuclear Society (June 6, 2005).

** The issue may be one of timing.  Prof. Perin based her CAP recommendation, in part, on a 2001 study that suggested licensees’ self-regulation might be inadequate.  We have the benefit of a more contemporary view.  

*** C. Perin, Shouldering Risks: The Culture of Control in the Nuclear Power Industry, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

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