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.

Author: Moderator

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

6 thoughts on “Factoring in Human Factors in Nuclear Power Plants”

  1. After evaluating the information you provided, we have determined that we will need additional information from you in order for the NRC to perform an effective review of your concerns. For example, if you can provide more information about what you specifically observed, when, and at which plant, it would help us focus our review effort. If you have any additional information to provide, you can call 1-800-695-7403 or contact the Allegation Program in writing at NRC.Allegation@nrc.gov.

    NRC Allegation Program

  2. Anonymous…

    I have been involved with groups tasked with procedure and work plan assessments and upgrade projects for these and these. I believe this is the last frontier in equipment reliability, error-free maintenance and ultimately safety in our nuclear power plants.

    One thing is certain. It is critical to recognize the aging work force in the Nuclear Power Sector. Those of us whom have spent our entire adult life working in nuclear plants (over 25-35 years) and are involved with Planning, Engineering or Procedure Writing, deregulation changed the landscape substantially.

    Moderator Note: Verbiage removed to adhere to blog comment guidelines regarding allegations.

  3. I find it useful for me to read your articles as this helps me to extend my English language skills. Your topic is not that easy for me to understand and when i read more and more of your articles i feel like i am expanding my knowledge. Thanks

  4. Dr. Barnes, I suggest that you start with those that have been retaliated against at San Onofre and use them as a case study on what has become a nationwide nuclear debacle! I’m sure many of those that tried to get SCE to do the right thing, yet were retaliated against instead, would be only too happy to share their experiences with you! This is an opportunity that the NRC needs to make the most of, if protecting public safety is truly their most important mission!

  5. I believe human factor Issues have contributed to the severity of accidents such as TMI, automobiles, motorcycles, trains, aircraft, ships, etc., where consequences are a function the quickness of operator awareness and action. But, given that NPP accident analysis assumes a delay of 30 minutes for an operator to take action, I don’t understand how Human Factors studies help much. I believe it is better to simplify the designs and train operators to analyze the situation and initiate action, even when the procedures do not appear to address the accident situation.

  6. The NRC is assuming that politics, egos, lies, and job protection are not involved, when, in fact, these are the primary reasons for failures in human performance.

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