Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Post # 100: An Ethos of Reactor Safety (2015)

As is common at the interface between last year and this year, I've engaged in my share of review and reflection.  One subject near and dear to my heart is that of commercial nuclear power safety.

Two years ago this month I posted my personal nuclear safety manifesto.  In Post # 75, I presented a four-point "Ethos of Reactor Safety".  My motivation for doing so was/is my concern over the "graying" of the reactor safety profession, and (what I perceive as) a never-ending seduction in the industry and among regulatory authorities to place our confidence in check lists, regulatory frameworks and guidelines, complex computer codes, "generic industry responses", and our great track record (Fukushima and TMI excepted) – while paying far less attention to the culture and skill of the nuclear safety professional who exercises and navigates through this landscape.

I've had numerous conversations since the original Ethos was posted in January of 2013.  The Ethos also appeared as a postscript in my paper, "The Canary, The Ostrich, and the Black Swan: An Historical Perspective On Our Understanding of BWR Severe Accidents and Their Mitigation," which appeared in the May 2014 edition of the American Nuclear Society's journal "Nuclear Technology" (Vol 186, No. 2).

After two years of discussion and reflection, I've decided the four-point Ethos should really be a five-point Ethos.  The fifth point is actually an elevation of a statement that was embedded in one of the original four points, but, I'm convinced, warrants elevation.

So here you go.  Fresh for 2015, an updated (improved?) version of

Greene's Ethos of Nuclear Reactor Safety (2015):

This ethos is comprised of five ideals, principles, and attitudes essential to the practice of reactor safety:
  1. An acute awareness of one's responsibility to society.  Abundant, reliable, and affordable electricity is the chief technical enabler of the quality of life most of us desire.  Nuclear power is the only energy technology available today with a realistic potential to supply abundant electricity to billions of people around the world living with little or no access to it.  It is also one of the few technologies which, if implemented poorly, has the potential to prevent our neighbors from ever returning to their communities and homes.  These two realities (benefits vs. risk) should provide strong motivation to those who aspire to be a nuclear safety professional;
  2. A chronic sense of uneasiness.  This means having a persistent questioning attitude regarding what we know, what we know we don't know, and what we don't know we don't know;
  3. A zeal for fundamental understanding.  The passion for and skills to integrate experimental data, simulation & analysis results, and operational experience to arrive at a science-based understanding of the facts;
  4. A scientific and technical humility.  One who has a "healthy respect" for the limits of our (and their personal) knowledge and the wisdom to operate within these limits.  One who constantly asks themselves, "What if I'm wrong?"
  5. A willingness to challenge the status quo and the Establishment.  The reactor safety professional is, in many ways, the conscience of the industry.  He or she must possess the strength of their convictions to challenge "group think", "easy solutions", and "convenient responses" when their personal knowledge, insights, and instincts compel action – and to be willing to bear the consequences of doing so.

So there you have it.  Five points I feel every nuclear safety professional should have engrained in their DNA – an interlocking set of principles, attitudes, and behaviors that will ensure commercial nuclear power and related nuclear enterprises continue to set the highest standard for industrial safety as we move into the 21st century.

Cheers and Happy New Year.

Just Thinking,