Thursday, October 20, 2016

Korean Perspective on Nuclear Safety Culture

Republic of Korea flag
We recently read two journal articles that present the Korean perspective on nuclear safety culture (NSC), one from a nuclear research institute and the other from the Korean nuclear regulator.  Selected highlights from each article are presented below, followed by our perspective on the articles’ value.

Warning:  Although the articles are in English, they were obviously translated from Korean, probably by a computer, and the translation is uneven.  However, the topics and references (including IAEA, NRC, J. Reason and Schein) will be familiar to you so with a little effort you can usually figure out what the authors are saying.

Korean NSC Situation and Issues*

The author is with the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute.  He begins by describing a challenge facing the nuclear industry: avoiding complacency (because plant performance has been good) when the actual diffusion of NSC attributes among management and workers is unknown and major incidents, e.g., Fukushima, point to deficient NSC has a major contributor.  One consequence of this situation is that increased regulatory intervention in licensee NSC is a clear trend. (pp. 249, 254)

However, different countries have differing positions on how to intervene in or support NSC because (1) the objectification of an essentially qualitative factor is necessarily limited and (2) they fear diluting the licensee’s NSC responsibilities and/or causing unintended consequences. 

The U.S. NRC’s NSC history is summarized, including how NSC is addressed in the Reactor Oversight Process and relevant supplemental inspection procedures.  The author’s perception is “If safety culture vulnerability is judged to seriously affect the safety of a nuclear power plant, NRC orders the suspension of its operation, based on the judgment.” (p. 254)  In addition, the NRC has “developed and has been applying a licensee safety culture oversight program, based on site-stationed inspector's observation and assessment . . .” (ibid.)

The perception that the NRC would shut down a plant over NSC issues is a bit of a stretch.  While the agency is happy to pile on over NSC shortcomings when a plant has technical problems (see our June 16, 2016 post on ANO) it has also wrapped itself in knots to rationalize the acceptability of plant NSC in other cases (see our Jan. 30, 2013 post on Palisades).   

There is a passable discussion of the methods available for assessing NSC, ranging from observing top management leadership behavior to taking advantage of “Big data” approaches.  However, the author cautions against reliance on numeric indicators; they can have undesirable consequences.  He observes that Europe has a minimal number of NSC regulations while the U.S. has none.  He closes with recommendations for the Korean nuclear industry.

Regulatory Oversight of NSC**

The authors are with the Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety, the nuclear regulatory agency.  The article covers their philosophy and methods for regulating NSC.  It begins with a list of challenges associated with NSC regulatory oversight and a brief review of international efforts to date.  Regulatory approaches include monitoring onsite vulnerabilities (U.S.), performing standard reviews of licensee NSC evaluations (Canada, Korea) and using NSC indicators (Germany, Finland) although the authors note such indicators do not directly measure NSC. (pp. 267-68)

In the Korean view, the regulator should perform independent oversight but not directly intervene in licensee activities.  NSC assessment is separate and different from compliance-based inspection, requires effective two-way communications (i.e., a common language) and aims at creating long-term continuous improvement. (pp. 266-67)  Their NSC model uses a value-neutral definition of NSC (as opposed to strong vs. weak); incorporates Schein’s three levels; includes individuals, the organization and leaders; and emphasizes the characteristics shared by organization members.  It includes elements from IAEA GSR Part 2, the NRC, J. Reason's reporting culture, DOE, INPO, just culture and Korea-specific concerns about economics trumping safety. (pp. 268-69)***

In the detailed description of the model, we were pleased to see “Incentives, sanctions, and rewards correspond to safety competency of individuals.”  (p. 270)  An organization’s reward system has always been a hot-button issue for us; all nuclear organizations claim to value NSC, few are willing to pay for achieving or maintaining it.  Click the “Compensation” label to see all our posts on this topic.

The article presents a summary of an exercise to validate the model, i.e., link model components to actual plant safety performance.  The usual high-level mumbo-jumbo is not helped by the rough spots in the translation.  Inspection results, outage rates, scrams, incidents, unplanned shutdowns and radiation doses were claimed to be appropriately correlated with NSC model components.

There should be no surprise that the model was validated.  Getting a “right” answer is obviously good for the regulator.  We routinely express some skepticism over studies that validate models when we can’t see the actual data and we don’t know if the analysis was independently reviewed by anyone who actually understands or cares about the subject matter.

During the pilot study, several improvement areas in Korean NPP's safety culture were identified.  The approach has not been permanently installed.

Our Perspective

These articles are worth reading just to get a different, i.e., non-U.S., perspective on regulatory evaluation of (and possible intervention in) licensee SC.  It’s also worthwhile to get a non-U.S. perspective on what they think is going on in U.S. nuclear regulatory space.  Their information sources probably include a June 2015 NRC presentation to Korean regulators referenced in our Aug. 24, 2015 post.  

It’s interesting that Europe has some regulations that focus on ongoing communications with the licensees.  In contrast, the U.S. has no regulations but an approach that can stretch like a cheap blanket to cover all possible licensee situations.


We haven’t posted for awhile.  It’s not because we’ve lost interest but there hasn’t been much worth reporting.  The big nuclear news in the U.S. is not about NSC, rather it’s about plants being scheduled for shutdown because of their economics.  International information sources have not been offering up much either.  For example, the LinkedIn NSC forum has pretty much dried up except for recycled observations and consultants’ self-serving white papers.

*  Y-H Lee, “Current Status and Issues of Nuclear Safety Culture,” Journal of the Ergonomics Society of Korea vol. 35 no. 4 (Aug 2016) 247-261.

**  YS Choi, SJ Jung and YH Chung, “Regulatory Oversight of Nuclear Safety Culture and the Validation Study on the Oversight Model Components,” Journal of the Ergonomics Society of Korea vol. 35 no. 4 (Aug 2016) 263-275.

***  Korea has had problems, mentioned in both articles, caused by deficient NSC.  Also see our Aug. 7, 2013 post for related information.