Nuclear group puts methods into use to foster 'a safety culture'

A national trade group told nuclear power plant operators at 104 reactors around the country Monday to start following new procedures in 2011 designed to minimize human error and managerial problems.

By Oct. 1 of next year, the Washington-based Nuclear Energy Institute said, reactor owners must begin following standardized programs that foster an improved "safety culture" - that is, personal accountability involved in maintaining safety, as distinct from the strict oversight of hardware systems like pipes, turbines and valves, and generators that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission already closely regulates.

The NEI has developed more than 400 pages of guidelines for reactor owners called "Fostering a Strong Nuclear Safety Culture." It has also run pilot programs to test its approach at four reactor sites - including Dominion's North Anna reactor in Richmond, Va., said Steve Kerekes, an NEI spokesman.

Dominion also owns Millstone Power Station in Waterford.

The oversight already in place for hardware systems through the NRC is highly detailed, thorough, and "robust," said Kerekes. The NRC's so-called "performance indicators" - detailed assessments used to rank and analyze compliance with federal rules - are scrutinized continuously. But there's room to improve human performance, and this initiative will help reactor owners "do better," he said.

"If you just look at the various performance indicators that are tracked, I think it's clear our plants are operating with very high margins of safety and reliability," Kerekes said. "At the same time, safety culture can be a very challenging thing to get your arms around. Some companies are doing a great job; other companies are not performing at as high a level.

"We want to make sure with regard to safety culture we're striving and looking and achieving at higher levels than we are today."

At the test sites over several weeks throughout the year, operators were engaged in collecting data, forming teams to analyze it with NRC inspectors "looking over their shoulders," and then providing feedback, said Kerekes.

Some of the issues covered include reactors' "employee concerns" programs, which deal with workers' issues concerning safety, oversight, and a range of personnel matters. Other areas covered included "corrective actions" programs, which focus on steps put in place following a lapse that leads to an equipment problem, such as, for instance, an unplanned reactor shutdown.

Industry critics like Dave Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and David Collins, a former specialist in reactor safety systems at Millstone, said NEI's approach is "a step in the right direction," though they remain somewhat skeptical.

Human error or managerial laxity, not mechanical problems, let to the shutdowns of Three Mile Island in 1979, Millstone Power Station in the late 1990s and the Davis Bessie nuclear power plant in 2002, Lochbaum recalled.

"The NRC does a nice job monitoring hardware systems," said Collins, who lives in Old Lyme, "but needs to do a better job regulating the management aspects of safety. I've been very critical of this and I think the (NEI initiative) is a good only if it can be made effective later. It is currently ineffective: the industry is monitoring itself - this is the fox monitoring the henhouse. Because NRC lacks expertise in this area, it acts more like a lapdog than a watchdog."

For its part, the NRC has been working on ways to improve safety culture at nuclear power plants for many years, said Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for Region 1, which includes Millstone, in an e-mail. In January, the NRC will get a report from staff on a new "safety culture policy statement" that would apply to all reactors.

That guidance will be based on input from a presidentially appointed commission that oversees the NRC in these matters, Sheehan said.

The NEI is pulling ahead of the NRC, in part, said Lochbaum, because as an industry representative it believes it can avoid a "one-size-fits-all" mandate and provide reactor owners with some flexibility in meeting safety culture guidelines. He urged the NEI to publish any detailed reports on safety culture just as the NRC publishes documents on nuclear operations.

"Part of safety culture is a willingness to be open and forthcoming about your problems," said Lochbaum. "If they hide their safety culture reports, they've stumbled coming out of the gate."

This past spring, Dominion's trimming of staff with 149 buyouts and 54 layoffs included cutting workers in the Organizational Effectiveness Department from 11 to six, including Collins, who took a buyout. That department ensures the company is properly managing reactor safety and performance.

At the time, A.J. Jordan, site vice president, said emphasis on organizational effectiveness is part of the culture and responsibility of all departments, reducing the need for the number of employees specifically dedicated to that job.

Lochbaum, who is familiar with the situation at Millstone, said that NEI's initiative should help with just these kinds of issues.

"If this program had been in place at Millstone before David Collins retired, the issues he pointed to would have been put through that program and substantiated and fixed, or the reason for why they were not valid and substantiated would have been documented," Lochbaum said.

Dominion said Millstone will participate in the NEI program and supports it at all of its nuclear stations.

"Nuclear safety is already a top priority for us," said Dominion spokesman Ken Holt, "and what this is doing is taking a robust program and strengthening it. At the end of the day, the result is a safer, more efficient Millstone."

p.daddona@theday.com

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