Monday, April 21, 2014

Assessing Safety Culture Using Cultural Attributes

Two weeks ago we posted on NUREG-2165, a document that formalizes a “common language” for describing nuclear safety culture (SC).  The NUREG contains a set of SC traits, attributes that define each trait and examples that would evidence each attribute.  We expressed concern about how traits and attributes could and would be applied in practice to assess SC.

Well, we didn’t have to wait very long.  This post reviews a recent International Nuclear Safety Journal article* that describes the SC oversight process developed by the Romanian nuclear regulatory agency (CNCAN).  The CNCAN process uses the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) SC definition and attributes and illustrates how attributes can be used to evaluate SC.  Note that CNCAN is not attempting to directly regulate SC but they are taking comprehensive steps to evaluate and influence the licensee’s SC.

CNCAN started with the 37 IAEA attributes and decided that 20 were accessible via the normal review and inspection activities.  Some of the 20 could be assessed using licensee and related documentation, others through interviews with licensee and contractor personnel, and others by direct observation of relevant activities. 

CNCAN recognizes there are limitations to using this process, e.g., findings that reflect a reviewer’s subjective opinion, the quality of match (relevance) between an attribute and a specific technical or functional area, the quality of the information gathered and used, and over-reliance on one specific finding.  Time is also an issue.  “[A] large number of review and inspection activities are required, over a relatively long period of time, to gather sufficient data in order to make a judgement on the safety culture of an organisation as a whole.” (p. 4)

However, they are optimistic about longer-term effectiveness.  “. . . evidence of certain attributes not being met for several functional areas and processes would provide a clear indication of a problem that would warrant increased regulatory surveillance.”  In addition, “[t]he implementation of the [oversight process] proved that all the routine regulatory reviews and inspections reveal aspects that are of certain relevance to safety culture.  Interaction with plant staff during the various inspection activities and meetings, as well as the daily observation by the resident inspectors, provide all the necessary elements for having an overall picture of the safety culture of the licensee.” (ibid., emphasis added)

Our Perspective

We reviewed a draft of the CNCAN SC oversight process on March 23, 2012.  We found the treatment of issues we consider important to be generally good.  For example, in the area of decision making, goal conflict is explicitly addressed, from production vs. safety to differing personal opinions.  Corrective action (CA) gets appropriate attention, including CA prioritization based on safety significance and verification that fixes are implemented and effective.  Backlogs in many areas, including maintenance and corrective actions, are addressed.  In general, the treatment is more thorough than the examples included in the NUREG.

However, the treatment of management incentives is weak.  We favor a detailed evaluation of the senior managers’ compensation scheme focusing on how much of their compensation is tied to achieving safety (vs. production or other) goals.

So, do we feel better about the qualms we expressed over the NUREG, viz., that it is a step on the road to the bureaucratization of SC evaluation, a rigid checklist approach that ultimately creates an incomplete and possibly inaccurate picture of a plant’s SC?  Not really.  Our concerns are described below.


For starters, CNCAN decided to focus on 20 attributes because they believed it was possible to gather relevant information on them.  What about the other 17?  Are they unrelated to SC simply because it might be hard to access them?

A second simplification is limiting the information search to artifacts: documents, interviews and observations.  One does not have to hold some esoteric belief, e.g., that SC is an emergent organizational property that results from the functioning of a socio-technical system, to see that focusing on the artifacts may be similar to the shadows in Plato’s cave.  Early on, the article refers to this problem by quoting from a 1999 NEA report: “the regulator can evaluate the outward operational manifestations of safety culture as well as the quality of work processes, and not the safety culture itself.” (p. 2)

Limited applicability

Romania has a single nuclear plant and what is, at heart, a one-size-fits-all approach is much more practical when “all” equals one.  This type of approach might even work in, say, France, where there are multiple plants but a single operator.  On the other hand, the U.S. currently has 32 operators reporting to 81 owners.**  Developing SC assessment techniques that are comprehensive, consistent and perceived as fair by such a large group is not a simple task.  The U.S. approach will continue to subsume SC evaluation under the ROP, which arguably ties SC evaluation to “objective” safety-related performance but unfortunately leads to de facto regulation of SC, less transparency and incomprehensible results in specific cases.***

(It could be worse.  For an example, just look at DOE where the recent “guidance” on conducting SC self-assessments led to unreliable self-assessment results that can’t be compared with each other.  For more on DOE, see our March 31, 2014 post or click on the DOE label at the bottom of this post.)

Bottom line

Ultimately the article can be summarized as follows: It’s hard, maybe impossible to directly evaluate SC but here’s what we (CNCAN) are doing and we think it works.  We say a CNCAN-style approach may be helpful but one should remain alert to important SC factors that may be overlooked.

*  M. Tronea, “Trends and Challenges in Regulatory Assessment of Nuclear Safety Culture,” International Nuclear Safety Journal, vol. 3 no. 1 (2014), pp. 1-5.  Retrieved April 14, 2014.  Dr. Tronea works for the Romanian nuclear authority (CNCAN) and is the founder/moderator of the LinkedIn Nuclear Safety group.

**  NEI website, retrieved April 15, 2014.

***  For an example, see our Jan. 30, 2013 post on Palisades

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