What’s All the Buzz About Safety Culture?

Chances are that if you follow local and world-wide events you have heard references to how an organization’s safety culture played a role in what happened. So, what is “safety culture?”

There are various definitions of safety culture. Most of these focus on the idea that when an organization’s activities could have serious consequences, it should develop and maintain its programs, practices, and procedures with a safety-first focus. In the medical world, for example, before beginning surgery, many hospitals have what’s called a “five minute time out.” During the “time out,” everyone from the surgeons to the technical staff stops to ensure the right people are present, the right equipment is present, the right patient is on the table, and that everyone understands their role. This is a good example of safety culture at work.

The higher the stakes, the more important it is for individuals and organizations to understand that they should engage in their activities with a strong safety-first focus. And the materials that the NRC regulates put our activities into that “high stakes” category.

We recently issued a Safety Culture Policy Statement that reiterates the NRC’s expectation that anyone with a role in NRC-regulated activities will establish and maintain a positive safety culture that takes into account the safety and security significance of their activities. In the statement, we define nuclear safety culture as “the core values and behaviors resulting from a collective commitment by leaders and individuals to emphasize safety over competing goals to ensure protection of people and the environment.”

The policy statement was developed in collaboration with leaders in the nuclear industry who are responsible for a positive safety culture as well as organizations and members of the public interested in the safe and secure use of nuclear materials. While the policy statement is not a regulation, it supports the effective implementation of the NRC’s regulations.

Chairman Jaczko spoke about the importance of safety culture in a 2010 speech at the Annual CEO Conference of the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations. In that speech, he said: “In order to ensure that the NRC’s safety rules are followed, you can’t simply focus on qualifications and training. Those are essential, of course [but you also] need employees who have a safety focus and the dedication to consistently apply their skills to follow NRC requirements.”

This message underscores the importance the NRC places on ensuring the development and maintenance of a positive safety culture in the activities we regulate. Look for more information in the future about the importance of a positive safety culture on what the NRC does. Feel free to post comments to this post with your thoughts, suggestions and questions related to safety culture.

Maria Schwartz
Office of Enforcement

New Reactor Construction Experience Program — Learning from the Past

The NRC is currently reviewing several applications from the nuclear industry to build more than 20 new nuclear reactors. These new plants, so called Generation III+ reactors, include designs with an alphabet of acronyms. They include the Advanced Passive or AP-1000, the Advanced Boiling Water Reactor, or ABWR, the Advanced Pressurized Water Reactor, or APWR, the Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor, or ESBWR, and the Evolutionary Power Reactor, or EPR.

Construction of these reactors cannot begin unless and until the NRC completes its technical reviews and the license application is approved.

There are currently 104 operating reactors in the U.S. Many of them were constructed in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Both the industry and the NRC faced many challenges in building and licensing and regulating these reactors. One major challenge was ineffective control and management of the overall projects.

In 1984, at the direction of Congress, the NRC studied the causes of major quality-related problems in the construction of some nuclear power plants. At the conclusion of the study, the NRC published NUREG-1055, “Improving Quality and the Assurance of Quality in the Design and Construction of Nuclear Power Plants,” to document its findings and recommendations.

Some examples of the recommendations include: the industry should put higher standards on their own actions, work harder to identify how and why quality problems occurred, and to enlist the help of third-party auditors to identify issues objectively and early.

To improve NRC programs, the study suggested a stronger emphasis on team inspections and the role of resident inspectors, and better data and trending analysis to diagnose problems earlier in the process. In addition, the study recommended that higher attention and quality assurance measures should be placed on systems and structures that have the most impact on overall nuclear safety.

To make sure we’d learned the lessons from past construction projects, the NRC created the Construction Experience Program in 2007. It has grown from one to four staff in the past four years. Its purpose is to review and evaluate problems at domestic and international construction projects, and to propose ways to enhance NRC technical reviews and inspection procedures.

Since its inception, the program has evaluated more than 300 domestic and international operating and construction experience reports dating from the 1980s to present. As a result of these evaluations, the staff has published 10 information notices to share lessons learned and insights from the evaluations with internal and external NRC stakeholders and the public. These information notices raised the awareness of utilities about particular construction and operational experiences to ensure they did not reoccur.

Omid Tabatabai
Senior Reactors Systems Engineer
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