Monday, October 29, 2012

Nuclear Safety Culture Research

This is a subject that has been on our minds for some time.  Many readers may have eagerly jumped to this post to learn about the latest on research into nuclear safety culture (NSC) issues.  Sorry, you will be disappointed just as we were.  The painful and frankly inexplicable conclusion is that there is virtually no research in this area.  How come?

There is the oft-quoted 2002 comment by then ACRS Chairman, Dr. George Apostolakis:

"For the last 20 to 25 years this agency [the NRC] has started research projects on organizational-managerial issues that were abruptly and rudely stopped because, if you do that, the argument goes, regulations follow. So we don't understand these issues because we never really studied them."*

A principal focus of this blog has been to bring to the attention of our readers relevant information from academic and research sources.  We cover a wide range of topics where we see a connection to nuclear safety culture.  Thus we continually monitor additions to the science of NSC through papers, presentations, books, etc.  In doing so we have come to realize, there is and has been very little relevant research specifically addressing nuclear safety culture.  Even a search of secondary sources; i.e., the references contained in primary research documents, indicates a near vacuum of NSC-specific research.  This is in contrast to the oil and chemical industries and the U.S. manned space program.  In an August 2, 2010 post we described research by  Dr. Stian Antonsen of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology on “..whether it is possible to ‘predict’ if an organization is prone to having major accidents on the basis of safety culture assessments” [short answer: No].

Returning to the September 2012 DOE Nuclear Safety Workshop (see our Oct. 8, 2012 post), where nuclear safety culture was a major agenda item, we observe the only reference in all the presentations to actual research was from the results of an academic study of 17 offshore platform accidents to identify “cultural causal factors”. (See Mark Griffon’s presentation, slide 17.)

With regard to the manned space program, recall the ambitious MIT study to develop a safety culture simulation model for NASA and various independent studies, perhaps most notably
Diane Vaughan's The Challenger Launch Decision.  We have posted on each of these.

One study we did locate that is on topic is an empirical analysis of the use of safety culture surveys in the Millstone engineering organization performed by Professor John Carroll of MIT.  He found that “their [surveys'] use for assessing and measuring safety problematic…”**  It strikes us as curious that the nuclear industry which has so strongly embraced culture surveys hasn’t followed that with basic research to establish the legitimacy and limits of their application.

To further test the waters for applicable research we reviewed the research plans for major nuclear organizations.  The NRC Strategic Plan Fiscal Years 2008-2013 (Updated 2012)*** cites two goals in this area, neither of which address substantive nuclear safety culture issues:

Promote awareness of the importance of a strong safety culture and individual accountability of those engaged in regulated activities. (p.9)

Ensure dissemination of the Safety Culture Policy Statement to all of the regulated community. [Supports Safety Implementation Strategy 7] (p.12)

DOE’s 2010 Nuclear Energy Research and Development Roadmap identifies the following “major challenges”:

- Aging and degradation of system structures and components, such as reactor core internals, reactor pressure vessels, concrete, buried pipes, and cables.
- Fuel reliability and performance issues.
- Obsolete analog instrumentation and control technologies.
- Design and safety analysis tools based on 1980s vintage knowledge bases and computational capabilities.*

The goals of these nuclear research programs speak for themselves.  Now compare to the following from the Chemical Safety Board Strategic Plan:

“Safety Culture continues to be cited in investigations across many industry sectors including the Presidential Commission Report on Deepwater Horizon, the Fukushima Daiichi incident, and the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board’s recommendation for the Hanford Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant. A potential study would consider issues such as how safety culture is defined, what makes an effective safety culture, and how to evaluate safety culture.”

And this from the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, the largest energy sector research unit in Northern Europe.

Man, Organisation and Society – in this area, safety management in a networked operating environment, and the practices for developing nuclear safety competence and safety culture have a key role in VTT's research. The nuclear specific know-how and the combination of competencies in behavioural sciences and fields of technology made possible by VTT's multidisciplinary expertise are crucial to supporting the safe use of nuclear power.#

We invite our readers to bring to our attention any NSC-specific research of which they may be aware.

*  J. Mangels and J. Funk, “Davis-Besse workers' repair job hardest yet,” Cleveland Plain Dealer (Dec. 29, 2002).  Retrieved Oct. 29, 2012.

**    J.S. Carroll, "Safety Culture as an Ongoing Process: Culture Surveys as Opportunities for Inquiry and Change," work paper (undated) p.23, later published in Work and Stress 12 (1998), pp. 272-284.

***  NRC "Strategic Plan: Fiscal Years 2008–2013" (Feb. 2012) published as NUREG-1614, Vol. 5.

****  DOE, "Nuclear Energy Research and Development Roadmap" (April 2010) pp. 17-18. 

*****  CSB, "2012-2016 US Chemical Safety Board Strategic Plan" (June 2012) p. 17.
#  “Nuclear power plant safety research at VTT,” Public Service Review: European Science and Technology 15 (July 13, 2012).  Retrieved Oct. 29, 2012.

1 comment:

  1. Bob,

    My advice would be stick with the Null Hypothesis - earnest researchers have gone looking for this artifact Nuclear Safety Culture and much like the Loch Ness Monster it is no where to be found.

    I came across a description recently that I found resonant - Culture is amplified (mission) clarity.

    That seems a lot simpler than other definitions we have - and unless management is intent on wrecking the plant - it would seem to suffice. We've seen well run plants, the things they do well, and what values are amplified in action. It is the cohesive amplification of whole-mission commitment, not any one-size-fits-all list of traits that stands out as normative.

    Looking to identify where clarity is strong and coherent provides a benchmark in comparison to a badly divided camp (ala Palisades) where it seems evident that management and the rest of the work force simply do not share the same mission goals. An organization of tightly protected functional stovepipes - with or without a dominant hierarchy is one drifting toward chaos.

    There is a practice called Abductive Ethnography of which Michael Agar - is an accomplished proponent. I find that Agar comes closest to describing a practical method of learning from the experience of others, with due regard for the reality that the world admits of multiple perspectives on the same circumstance.

    The more I study it, the more I conclude that Nuclear Safety Culture is a "Hail Mary Pass" intended to create enforceable requirements for organizational complexities with many more degrees of freedom (i.e. risk dimensions) than just nuclear safety.

    The reality is that there is lots of cultural anthropology research literature. Unfortunately for the categorical absolutists of the nuclear safety priesthood, there appears to be no bridge that can be constructed to their pet artifact.

    At the end of the day, Nuclear Safety Culture makes for a "half-rigged" vessel.


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