NRC to adopt safety culture policy

The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission is considering adopting a policy on safety culture designed to minimize human error and managerial problems at reactors across the country.

NRC Chairman Gregory B. Jaczko said the federal agency's draft, three years in the making, irons out key issues. It is not, however, an enforceable regulation, but rather a guide to "expectations" about how reactor employees should conduct themselves to enhance safety and security, he said.

The draft is available at http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/commission/secys/2011/2011-0005scy.pdf.

The proposed policy defines safety culture as "the core values and behaviors resulting from a collective commitment by leaders and individuals to emphasize safety over competing goals to ensure protection of people and the environment."

It also identifies nine "traits" that exemplify adherence to the policy, ranging from leadership safety values and personal accountability to effective communication and avoiding complaceny buy maintaining a questioning attitude.

The commission could act on the policy within the next few weeks, said spokesman Scott Burnell.

Industry critic Dave Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists said the proposal shows the NRC takes the issue seriously, but he questioned whether voluntary adherence to the policy will prevent the kind of managerial problems that led to closure of Millstone Power Station in Waterford in the late 1990s when owned by Northeast Utilities.

"Bottom line," Lochbaum said, "the NRC should be an enforcer of regulations that ensure safety, not an encourager of unreliable traits that might lead to acceptable safety levels."

Burnell countered that the NRC's regulatory procedures can and do lead to heightened oversight in ways that can help a reactor owner avoid unacceptable performance. This recently occurred, for instance, at the Palo Verde reactor in Tonopah, Ariz., he said.

"If (federal) inspectors see a pattern of behavior that doesn't link up with a positive safety culture, we bring that to a plant's attention, and that can affect a plant's overall standing," he said.

Dominion, the owner of Millstone, supports the measure, said spokesman Ken Holt.

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