Factoring in Human Factors in Nuclear Power Plants

Valerie Barnes, PhD
Sr. Human Factors Analyst

Nuclear power plants are complicated. There are myriad systems and countless pieces of equipment that work together — and independently — to produce electricity. And they must work in a way that’s safe both for the communities around them and the workers themselves.

psychBut it takes more than machinery and equipment to make a plant run safely. It also takes people. And, well, people are very complicated, too.

That’s where we come in, NRC’s human factors psychologists – but we won’t be asking workers to lie on a couch and tell us their feelings and thoughts. Rather, our job is to assess the many things that affect human performance on the job. We are experts in measuring how humans process information and make decisions, as well as the behavior of individuals, groups and organizations in real-life settings. We look at the design of procedures and computer interfaces, the ergonomics of the workplace, how jobs are staffed, how staffers are trained and qualified, and what’s important for ensuring they are fit for duty. We also study communications and teamwork, and safety culture.

It’s our job is to ask and answer questions such as, “How might human performance fail in these circumstances? How likely is failure and what are the potential consequences? What could be changed to make failures less likely or less consequential?”

To answer these questions, the NRC’s human factors researchers collect information from academic sources, conduct experiments, and use operating experience from the nuclear and other industries to evaluate how human capabilities and limitations impact nuclear safety and security. From there, we use the research findings to create technical reports, regulations, and guidance. We also help resolve safety issues and make regulatory decisions.

To learn about this important – but perhaps little known – field of study and its importance to nuclear power plant safety, the NRC has just posted a video on the subject on YouTube. See what these specialized psychologists do – which has nothing to do with having clients lie on a couch and talk about their dreams.

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