Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Decommissioning Fukushima:

The Need for an International Effort

I have been hearing mixed signals about how the decommissioning of the damaged Fukushima units is likely to proceed.  On the one hand, I have seen several reports in the news indicating the interest of various countries, and of private firms in those countries, in participating in the decommissioning of the units.  The sense has been that the collective effort of experts around the world would be helpful in forging new solutions to address the unprecedented scale of the needed clean-up effort, and that the entire international nuclear community would benefit from the knowledge gained by working on this effort.

On the other hand, I have also heard whispers that the Japanese government was not prepared to open its doors to foreign involvement.  Whether because of embarrassment or because of the hope that Japanese firms might gain a commercial edge around the world by being the sole beneficiaries of the lessons to be learned from cleaning up from this accident, there has been concern that this project might remain off limits to the international community.

Therefore, I was heartened to see a recent publication from Takuya Hattori, President of the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum (JAIF), arguing strongly that the Fukushima decommissioning project be conducted openly, transparently, and with international involvement.  His key thoughts are:

1.  We are all "in the same boat."  Because many countries use nuclear power, once an accident occurs somewhere, its effects do not remain domestic.  

2.  Japan has a responsibility to the world.  Many countries have indicated that they will continue to use nuclear power, so Japan has a responsibility to release relevant information to help contribute to improving the safety of nuclear facilities worldwide.

3.  Japan has appeared to the world to be reluctant to cooperate.  Immediately after the accident, Japan didn't provide enough information to the world, leading to concerns that Japan was concealing information.  Following that, although many countries offered help or suggestions, Japan has not been prepared to respond properly.  Hattori-san indicates that Japan was not organized to receive input and hadn't decided who was responsible.  This has led to further criticism that Japan is not transparent and not willing to cooperate with the international community.

4.  Decommissioning needs the united wisdom of the world.  Decommissioning Fukushima Daiichi will be a major, long-term effort (30-40 years) requiring new R&D on working in highly radioactive environments and removing melted fuel.  It should proceed as rapidly as possible.

5.  There are parallels in other disciplines for such international collaboration.  Hattori-san specifically cites as an example the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), which invited research proposals internationally to study asteroid samples brought back to earth by the unmanned spacecraft, Hayabusa, in June 2010, and selected the winning proposals through the use of an international committee. 

With that as background, Hattori-san proposes two specific actions:

A platform for international R&D should be established.  Hattori-san suggests bringing resources from around the world to a common forum to be discussed openly so that appropriate technologies can be identified for the Fukushima decommissioning efforts.  The forum should be open to the world, but he mentions particularly the cooperation that has already been offered by the US, UK, France, Russia, and Canada.  Existing international organizations, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's Nuclear Energy Agency (OECD/NEA) should be used, but Japan should take the initiative to get this effort started.  

An international decommissioning research center should be established.  Hattori-san proposes that an international base for R&D be established in Fukushima, close to the plants.  The purpose of this center would be to develop new tools in robotics and other areas that will be useful not only for Fukushima, but for the other reactors around the world that are already shut and awaiting decommissioning, as well as for currently operating plants and even future plants as they reach the ends of their lives.  He sees such a site as fostering both cooperation and competition, of supporting current human resource efforts for the nuclear enterprise, and of contributing to the restoration and revitalization of the Fukushima region.

JAIF is an industry organization and is not the government, so the fact that the President of JAIF has offered this vision does not make it an accomplished fact.  Still, the logic for having some sort of effort along these lines is compelling, and with a model from another field, one hopes that his suggestions will get a receptive hearing from the halls of Kasumigaseki. 


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Fitness for Duty, Redux:

Drug Testing Run Amok

Sometimes the most interesting information doesn't come from the news media, but from the private experiences of individuals.  One reader, Tom Clegg, posted two fascinating tidbits of information in response to my recent blogpost on fitness for duty.  Since I'm never sure that early readers of a post go back and find the comments, I thought it was worthwhile for me to provide his comments in a new posting.

As readers of the earlier post will remember, I highlighted the case of poppy seeds, which can provide a false positive for opium in the first-level (and cheaper) drug test.  I thought my own experience was amusing.  I was told that it would be advisable if I didn't eat poppy seed bagels. I decided that I wasn't going to let my employer tell me what to eat and what not to eat, so I vowed to eat only (or at least, mostly) poppy seed bagels from then on.  (And I do so to this day.)

Well, based on Tom's reports, I can only say that I was lucky I was never called for a random drug test after eating a poppy seed bagel.  Tom offered two stories.

The first was the experience of a colleague:

Years back a coworker of mine at Indian Point ate a poppy-seed bagel for breakfast.He got picked that day for a random drug test. He came up positive on the test. He was sent down to Brooklyn to be examined and evaluated. Found out it was because of the poppy seed bagel. Con Edison made him sign a paper where he promised never to eat poppy-seed bagels. If this sounds odd to make matters worse they still sold poppy-seed bagel in the cafeteria!

 The second was his own experience:

Now I will tell you my experience with random drug testing. I have a commercial drivers license. When the laws on CDL's changed backed in the 90's. I got picked for a random drug test for the DOT. Even though I worked at Indian Point nuclear power plant at the time, I was still given the cheaper random drug test. I had eaten a poppy seed bagel that morning. The test came back positive. I had to go down to Brooklyn be examined by a doctor checking between my fingers, behind my knees,between my toes for needle marks. I was asked questions and had to submit to another drug test before it was discovered that it was a false positive. The thing is when ever I go to another nuclear power plant to help out for an outage. The question always comes up, Have you ever tested positive on a drug test? To which I have to answer yes. Then I have to fill out a form and explain it over and over again. No matter how many times I have worked at the same plant it happens all the time.

In my previous post, I was commenting on Canada's very recent adoption of a fitness-for-duty rule, and I opined that the US had gone down that path years ago with little disruption.  Tom has opened my eyes to some problems that I hadn't known existed. 

Usually, in cases such as these, the solutions don't seem that difficult, and I find it hard to fathom why fixes aren't made.  The occasional expense of a second-level test seems to me to be fairer than telling people they can't eat certain foods for the duration of their employment.  (Especially if they keep serving poppy-seed bagels on site!)  It is one thing to tell them they can't do something that is illegal anyway, or that would be dangerous (even if legal), but it is quite another to start to forbid normal, harmless activities.  And one would think that questionnaires about past drug test results could focus on what the end result was, not the intermediate step that we know is sometimes wrong.

Although sometimes the "institutions" seem to clam up and be unwilling to make changes, there is some hope.  When I read Tom's stories, I thought about airline security and the similarly absurd stories we've been hearing over the last few years.  It's taken some time, but recently, TSA has made some moves to modify the rules.  It may seem to be too little, too late to many frequent fliers, but they are taking steps in the right direction.  Maybe there is also hope in the drug-testing arena.

I can only say that I am sorry to hear of the difficulties Tom and his colleague have faced because of a requirement that has a valid purpose.  If anyone reading this has a hand in preparing the rules and procedures for drug testing anywhere, I hope they will consider these stories and use them to create a more rational approach to drug testing rules in the future.  I can also hope that Canada benefits from the "lessons learned" in the US and develops the rules and procedures in such a way that they don't have the same problems. 


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Allison Macfarlane:

A New Face at the NRC

There has been much discussion in recent weeks and months, first, of the sometimes acrimonious interactions among the Commissioners at the NRC, and later, of the nomination of Allison Macfarlane, as a Commissioner and Chair of the NRC.  As of yesterday, we have a new Commission--Macfarlane has replaced Gregory Jaczko as a Commissioner and as Chair.  Macfarlane was sworn in yesterday as the 33rd individual to serve on the Commission since the NRC was created in 1975.

It is hopefully a time for healing within the NRC.  While many of us don't know much about Macfarlane, it is hard to imagine that the situation that has existed will continue.  What has been troubling to me is the number of negative comments I've heard about her even before she was confirmed.

Right now, I think the best course of action for all concerned--the other Commissioners, the NRC staff, licensees, and interested observers, is to give the new Chairman and the new Commission a chance.  Obviously, there will be some break-in period while Macfarlane gets to know her new job and establishes her working relationships with her fellow Commissioners and the NRC staff.

Hopefully, that will not be a long period, as the NRC faces a lot of issues.  Hopefully, Macfarlane will be able to restore to the Commission some of the spirit of collegiality that has distinguished it in the past.  And hopefully, Macfarlane will embody the true spirit of the Commission and review the issues before the Commission objectively and impartially. 

Macfarlane must be aware of the fact that she may not have much time.  She has been appointed to fill the remainder of Jaczko's term, which gives her exactly one year (to July 1, 2013).  If Obama loses the Presidential election this fall, she will certainly not stay on as Chairman (although she could be appointed for another term as a Commissioner).  If Obama wins, she may be reappointed, both as Commissioner and as Chairman, but whether she is reappointed may depend on what she is able to accomplish in the coming year.

In the meantime, those who have had their doubts about Macfarlane should give her the same chance they want her to give to the issues before the Commission--a fair and balanced review. 


Saturday, July 7, 2012

Fukushima Accident Report:

"Made in Japan"

The long-awaited report from the Japanese Diet's Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission is out.  While I have not been able to read it completely (and I believe only portions are available in English at present), one item that has gotten a lot of attention so far is the statement by Kiyoshi Kurokawa, the chairman of the panel, that the accident was "Made in Japan"--that is, that it was a product of Japanese cultural tendencies.  Specifically, he states:

"Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to 'sticking with the programme'; our groupism; and our insularity.  What must be admitted – very painfully – is that this was a disaster 'Made in Japan'."

These are observations that have long been made by people outside Japan, myself included, so the conclusions come as no surprise.  (Some of my comments on this blog site include:  a number of blogs I wrote in the first 6 months after the Fukushima accident, and a report on comments by Professor Yoshiaki Oka I prepared somewhat after that.  What will be important is how the government and industry react to these observations.

As Japan begins to grapple with addressing these concerns, it would be well to keep several points in mind:

1.  These traits are "cultural tendencies," not laws of nature.  All countries have some traits that we would call "national" or "cultural" traits--Americans are "cowboys," British are "stiff upper-lipped," French are "arrogant."  The list goes on and on.  But when you get to know individual Japanese, or Americans, or British, or French, you realize that these characteristics vary widely over each population.  For every stereotypical national trait, I can probably find an exception among the people I know. 

2.  These cultural tendencies are not all bad.  Each tendency is very appropriate at certain times and places.  Societies need a certain degree of obedience to function.  A group mentality can help a civilization survive.  Cowboys represent the "pioneering spirit" that served America so well in its early days, and still is beneficial in many ways to this day.  I hope this statement by Professor Kurokawa, does not cause the Japanese to feel that they have "bad" characters.  

3.  These traits are not all good either.  Any personality or cultural trait taken to an extreme, or applied in the wrong environment, can backfire.  In the US, we tend to laud the pioneering spirit, the "can do, go it alone" attitude.  In a nuclear power plant, however, rules and procedures must be followed.  I'm not a sociologist, but I know that in Japan, the "groupism" and "obedience to authority" arises from the historic agricultural economy, and is beneficial in many ways.  However, individuals sometimes need to stand up and confront authority.

4.  All nations and all organizations struggle to find the right balance.  The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission was founded to assure separation from development and promotional functions and to assure "independence."  However, when I worked for Commissioner Rogers at the NRC, a number of us had begun to feel uncomfortable with the fact that some of the staff and management felt that "independence" should almost be a wall between the regulator and the licensee, and that any direct communication between them was inherently bad.  It was that concern, among others, that prompted Commissioner Rogers to instigate the preparation of NRC's Principles of Good Regulation. The very first of the Principles of Good Regulation, independence, is described as follows:

Independence does not imply isolation. All available facts and opinions must be sought openly from licensees and other interested members of the public. The many and possibly conflicting public interests involved must be considered. Final decisions must be based on objective, unbiased assessments of all information, and must be documented with reasons explicitly stated.

I have previously commented in more detail on both the Principles of Good Regulation and on the issue of independence as it might apply in Japan.

5.  The changes needed are fundamental and won't be easy.  In the past, there have been several reorganizations in Japan intended to address problems that were previously observed.  These have involved both the government agencies and the research and development institutes that serve them.  After one such reorganization, a very senior official in that organization commented to me that "We have changed the name, but nothing has really changed."  This was some time ago and was the private comment of one individual, so I do not want to blow it out of proportion.  However, at the time, I sensed that this was a widespread attitude.

Cosmetic changes were really not enough at that time, and perhaps in the long run, helped contribute to the situation Japan faces today.  Cosmetic changes certainly will not suffice today and in the future.  The Japanese government must make profound changes in the way the different parts of the government communicate and coordinate, and in the way that the regulator coordinates with the licensees.  The lines of authority must be drawn in a way that differs from how they have traditionally been drawn and how they may continue to be drawn elsewhere in the government.  Embedded practices, such as amakudari (which I previously addressed, and on which I also issued a post highlighting some comments made on the first blog), that may hamper the ability of the regulator to operate independently, must be addressed, but doing so has profound implications on basic personnel practices.

Japan seems to be making a promising start with its plans for regulatory reform.  However, many details of these plans have not yet been finalized, so it is difficult to comment further at this time.  In addition, just establishing a new organization will not be enough.  The implementation plan must assure that the fundamental changes are really made, and that the reorganization does not turn out to be just another case of changing the name of the organization.      

6.  Maintaining a new culture is a continuing process.  Even beyond the implementation phase, the kinds of changes Japan needs include fundamental behavioral changes by the individuals in the system.  Some undoubtedly go against the cultural traditions that all Japanese grow up with.  For example, children are taught that "the nail that sticks up gets hammered down."  That message provides a powerful disincentive to speaking up when someone sees something wrong.  The "rules of the road" for staffers of nuclear power plants and nuclear regulatory organizations needs to be a little different from the rules for the prevailing culture.

Once again, this is equally true for other characteristics in other cultures.  I have written in the past about what I called the "eraser mentality" in Japan--a tendency I saw to try to cover up errors.  We have seen that tendency in reports on some of the smaller accidents in Japan in the past.  Although I focused on this trait in Japan, perhaps because I saw it there in a more exaggerated form, this is a human tendency.  Who among us, after all, has not been tempted to try to deny that they did something wrong, especially if they thought they could get away with it?  In the US, I know that creating and maintaining an environment that encourages people to own up to mistakes is an on-going process and requires actions at every level.