How a Questioning Attitude Encourages Safety

Maria E. Schwartz
Office of Enforcement Senior Project Manager
 

questionnewAre we there yet? Why is the sky blue? Why is rain wet? Children have an endless list of questions as they discover the world around them. But as we grow older, most people tend to ask fewer questions.

This may be due, at least in part, to the fact that we start to make assumptions about many of the things around us based on what we have already learned or observed. Sometimes we ask fewer questions because at some point, someone made us feel ashamed that we didn’t know the answer or made it clear they had more important things to do than respond to our questions.

Re-developing that questioning attitude we embraced as children, however, is very important to an organization’s health and critical to its safety culture.

The NRC’s Safety Culture Policy Statement includes “Questioning Attitude” as a trait of a positive safety culture. The policy statement describes it as a part of a culture where “individuals avoid complacency and continuously challenge existing conditions and activities in order to identify discrepancies that might result in error or inappropriate action.”

A questioning attitude helps to prevent “group think” by encouraging diversity of thought and intellectual curiosity. It challenges the entire organization to get clarification when something comes up that doesn’t seem right.

Examples include situations as simple as walking by a broken door day after day without stopping and questioning why it remains broken; or skipping over a confusing step in a procedure you use every day rather than getting clarification. It could include ignoring an alarm because nuisance alarms go off all the time and they never indicate an actual emergency. Or it could be something a little more complicated such as not speaking up to question a calculation that doesn’t seem right because the senior engineer performed the calculation.

A positive safety culture requires the collective commitment by both leaders and individual employees to emphasize safety over competing goals. A questioning attitude supports that commitment.

Author: Moderator

Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

18 thoughts on “How a Questioning Attitude Encourages Safety”

  1. I agree, there are many safety concerns especially for the oldest reactors that makes rubber stamping them for additional years of service a serious concern! The Japanese thought they would never have a nuclear accident also, but time has proven them wrong, we cannot allow Nuclear Denial* to result in a similar accident in the USA, we are already getting enough of the fallout from Fukushima!may lam kem miniSadly this decision is now moving beyond being based upon acceptable engineering design principles and has entered the political arena with the nuclear industry making use their considerable political influence! This should be ringing NRC alarm bells; because it is exactly what lead to Fukushima’s Trillion Dollar Eco-Disaster, because the Japanese regulatory agency allowed themselves to be “bullied” into making poor decisions regarding safety, by both the very Industry they were regulating and their Utilities political supporters!

  2. What can “civilians,” if they cannot get access to the data required to make informed comments, make informed comments to the NRC?

    This is a basic question that needs to be answered if the NRC is to actually trying to accept public input!

  3. SCE/MHi threw the critical questioninig attitude in a ditch and the end result is no production with serious compromise in safety, waste of Billions of dollars, loss of credibility for SCE MHI NRC and Angry 8.4 Million Southern Californians

  4. Critical questioning attitude is optimizing production without compromising safety

  5. A. DeVolpi, PhD

    I agree, there are many safety concerns especially for the oldest reactors that makes rubber stamping them for additional years of service a serious concern! The Japanese thought they would never have a nuclear accident also, but time has proven them wrong, we cannot allow Nuclear Denial* to result in a similar accident in the USA, we are already getting enough of the fallout from Fukushima!

    * http://is.gd/XPjMd0

    The illogical belief that Nature cannot destroy any land based nuclear reactor, any place anytime 24/7/365!

  6. For sure, they sure wouldn’t want to have to add any cost to running these old clunker plants which are being fed crack (uprates) and milked until they die or blow up (excessive profit taking). New nuke will never make economic sense at $14B, but when they can buy old plants at $200M, get life extensions, and then get uprates, these can be big profit makers.

    The number of incidents and mistakes at US plants has gone parabolic, at a time when you would think “they” would be on pins and needles to operate these plants as perfectly as they could in the magnifying glass of the ongoing disaster at Fukushima.

    But that is not the case. Showing that they plant owners are arrogant and simply profit seeking regardless of risk. They know the financial impacts of disasters will not be borne by themselves, so they don’t give a rip.

  7. Encouraging to asking questions is fundamental for creating free- and open-thinkg society. Wise move!

  8. While the NRC is to be congratulated for recognizing and encouraging the development of a “Safety Culture” in order to protect the public, it is disappointing that the organization’s actual actions do not always match its goals or words. I refer, specifically, to the question of stockpiling and distribution of potassium iodide (KI) tablets for thyroid protection in the event of a nuclear emergency.

    It’s not that the NRC does not recognize the value of KI in a radiation emergency, or questions its safety and effectiveness. In fact, the NRC has long distributed KI to people who live or work within 10 miles of US commercial nuclear power plants, and virtually every facility keeps it on hand for worker protection. But beyond the ten-mile boundary, there is almost no KI available for the general public, and no way to get it if it were ever needed. The result, should a large release of radioactive iodine (RAI) occur, would almost certainly be thousands of cases of thyroid cancer beyond the ten mile planning zone that KI could otherwise effectively prevent.

    Surprisingly, the NRC acknowledges the need for measures beyond ten miles in the event of a severe release. In their own “Criteria for Preparedness” (NUREG-0654) the authors state that to protect the public, “protective actions would need to be taken outside the planning zones.” While this document emphasizes evacuation, sheltering and the interception of radioactive food and water, a sufficient supply of KI for all is not considered. This position defies logic and experience, given that in the early stages of a nuclear accident, the inhalation of contaminated air is the primary pathway for RAI to enter the body, and only KI represents an effective prophylactic defense. While evacuation, sheltering, and food control are valuable steps once RAI has settled out onto the ground, this could easily take a week or more, and areas at least 50 miles downwind could be jeopardized.

    It is hard to understand how the NRC’s deliberate decision NOT to stockpile enough KI is consistent with the stated goal of the Safety Culture “to emphasize safety over competing goals to ensure protection of people and the environment.” Surely, the experience at Chernobyl, where more than 6000 children contracted thyroid cancer, or the two comprehensive NRC research studies (NUREG-1433 and NUREG-6310) which both predict dangerous level of RAI for more than 50 miles, are powerful reasons why enough KI to protect everyone is an action that should be taken.

    Alan Morris
    Anbex

  9. A questioning attitude is seemingly nice, but from my perspective it’s a bureaucratic self-illusion.

    Having once been intensely involved in nuclear-safety R&D, I’ve had to emerge from retirement to point out that some of the four traumatic loss-of-coolant accidents were preventable if patented instrumentation for ex-vessel water-level monitoring had been installed.

    Even though I’ve briefed the NRC Fukushima Lessons-Learned Task Force, and published several explanatory mainstream technical papers, the concept of direct, autonomous ex-vessel water-level monitoring has again been buried in the basement.

  10. To:
    Maria E. Schwartz
    Office of Enforcement Senior Project Manager

    You have your work cut out for you!

    Using San Onofre as an example, it has become painfully obvious that the NRC and specifically NRC Region IV have allowed the Utility to lead them down a dangerous operational path, that the public now realizes is totally unsafe! The associated dangers of any restart have been well documented by Ex-NRC Senior employees, Utility whistle blowers, nuclear experts from both inside and outside the USA, along with a huge number of knowledgeable public organizations, that have even employed their own experts to double check what the NRC is doing about what the Utility is proposing! You have only to search the ADAM database and you will find a mountain for technical articles that describe in detail what is going on at San Onofre; is anyone at the NRC even reading these and or responding to their authors? If the NRC really wants public input, then they should not only provide data so knowledgable experts can review it, but then the NRC needs to actual consider what these outside experts say and respond to them about the concerns they have raised! To many, the only real surprise will be to find out if anyone at the NRC will take the responsibility to tell the Utility that San Onofre needs to be decommissioned!

    Sadly this decision is now moving beyond being based upon acceptable engineering design principles and has entered the political arena with the nuclear industry making use their considerable political influence! This should be ringing NRC alarm bells; because it is exactly what lead to Fukushima’s Trillion Dollar Eco-Disaster, because the Japanese regulatory agency allowed themselves to be “bullied” into making poor decisions regarding safety, by both the very Industry they were regulating and their Utilities political supporters!

    San Onofre has now become the “poster boy” for how not to regulate and/or operate a nuclear power generating station. I suggest that you form a high level working group, (with a few Non-industry Experts) and use San Onofre as a test case to better understand how the NRC allowed itself to get so deeply involved in defending the very Utility it is supposed to be regulating, said another way the NRC needs to rethink how they do business! Right now, the NRC is working along side Edison and MHI to try and re-engineer Edison’s poorly designed replacement steam generators; where is the impartial review, when the NRC has their own experts involved?

    Nuclear energy is BIG business and it is up to the NRC to insure that it is not only run safely but in such a way that any nuclear incident and/or nuclear accident is unacceptable because the risk of one or more Trillion Dollar Eco-Disaster would destroy our great Country for generations, just like Fukushima is doing in Northern Japan!

  11. (First posted by the DAB Safety Team on 12/10/12 and time has shown that little if anything has changed, except more problems have been identified by the ongoing additional investigations, yet Edison still replies to all the NRC’s questions that everything is safe to run Unit 2 at 100% Power, then asked to run it “for a short while” at 70% Power and now with a few additional components it should be safe to run it at 100% Power ===> The NRC needs to do much more than have a questioning attitude, they need to determine “in-house” if what the Utilities are saying makes engineering sense, in order to guarantee the public safety. The USA cannot afford a Trillion Dollar Eco-Disaster.)

    Public’s Perception of NRC Region IV Relationship With Southern California Edison

    Both seem to now be violating Federal Regulations and the Public’s Trust
    • The actions of both reveal Energy Production is more important than Public Health and Safety
    • NRC finds repeated problems at SONGS, NRC says they all are no more than a Minor Violations
    o SCE says, Problem has been put in the Corrective Action System and have been addressed
    • SONGS has the worst Nuclear Safety Violations and Worker Retaliation Record in the USA
    o NRC says SONGS has Zero Worker retaliation and Nuclear Safety Violations
    o NRC SONGS Nuclear Safety Violations data conflicts with its own statements
    SONGS almost had a Big Nuclear Accident
    • Yet SCE and the NRC say, it was just a Minor Leak
    • Nobody mentions Unit 2 had a SG tube in operation with 90% wear
    SONGS Prepared a Defective 10 CFR 50.59 Evaluation for its Replacement Steam Generators
    • The NRC says no problem, SONGS acted according to their OWN rules again…
    • The Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation says, Wait a Minute NRC, SONGS broke the Rules
    • Citizens say, when it comes to Edison, NRC has been sleeping at the switch for years
    NRC and Edison Attorney’s working together against the Public
    • NRC Region IV is in non-compliance with President Obama’s Open Government Initiative
    • NRC Region IV is in non-compliance with Senator Boxer’s Open Government Initiative
    • NRC Region IV is in non-compliance with NRC Chairman Safety Mission and its Own Rules
    NRC and Edison actions give the perception of regulatory collusion
    • Public Meetings are for Edison and NRC, not for the Public
    • This is Democratic America and not a Third World Dictator Country
    • Edison is paid by their Ratepayers and the NRC is paid by the Taxpayers
    • Southern Californians have faith in NRC Chairperson and Atomic Safety Licensing Board
    • US Gov’t. should not permit a Unit 2 Restart without a License Amendment and Public Hearings

    Southern Californians cannot afford a Fukushima-type DISASTER to occur in their Backyard

  12. Because most problems are new problems, a questioning attitude is a necessary element of an effective safety culture. It is, however, often difficult to pursue because it sometimes requires that the person asking the questions be willing to put his reputation on the line. Keep up the effort in this direction. It takes more than words to accomplish “the culture”.

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