Monday, January 21, 2013

Post # 75: Ethos of Nuclear Reactor Safety – Thinking Like A Nuclear Reactor Safety Expert

As those of you who've followed this blog for any time know, I've spent most of my career in the nuclear reactor safety and nuclear energy technology development fields.  While authoring my recent paper, "The Canary, The Ostrich, and The Black Swan: An Historical Perspective On Our Understanding of BWR Severe Accidents and Their Mitigation," (see Posts # 73 & 74) I had considerable time to reflect on the basic skills, values, and perspectives required of a professional reactor safety analyst.

I consider this a subject of no small importance. The generation of reactor safety specialists who enabled the licensing of most of the existing plants in the U.S., who performed the original Individual Plant Examinations (IPEs) and Individual Plant Examinations for External Events (IPEEEs) in the wake of TMI, and who conducted most of the commercial power plant probabilistic risk assessments (PRAs) performed to date, are either no longer with us or are no longer practicing.  Those that remain are slowly "passing the baton" to a new generation of reactor safety specialists who will become the guardians and sherpas of reactor safety for the next thirty years.  (Least this sound like my swan song – no pun intended –  I'll hasten to note that I'm one of the youngest of my generation of reactor safety specialists, and I hope to have many productive years left in the profession.)  Other than the recent flurry of plant life extension actions, the pace of commercial nuclear reactor safety analysis has slowed considerably during the past 20 years.  The nuclear reactor safety business hasn't exactly been seen as an "up and coming" profession and career path for aspiring young engineers.

Thus it is with this as background I share here what I call my "ethos of nuclear reactor safety" (as I like to believe Alvin Weinberg might have put it)...  This ethos is comprised of  four ideals, principles, or 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 reactor safety specialist;
  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 – a willingness to challenge the status quo and the establishment when necessary to ensure safety;
  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. And finally;
  4. A scientific and technical humility.  One who has a "healthy respect" for the limits of our knowledge and the wisdom to operate within these limits.  One who constantly asks oneself, "What if I'm wrong?"
No one ever sat me down and delivered these ideals to me as if they were chiseled in stone. These are the fundamentals I've distilled over the years by observing and learning from those who have gone before me in this business.   And I had never actually attempted to synthesize them myself until recently.

So there you have itGreene's Ethos Of Nuclear Reactor Safety.  Others may articulate it more eloquently or more precisely.  But my sincere hope is that the nuclear power industry, those who regulate it, and those who educate and train the professionals who invest themselves and their careers in it, will always be guided by these ideals.