Friday, August 7, 2015

Nuclear Power and Human Factors:

A Close Connection

I was very pleased to read recently that the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD/NEA) has just increased its emphasis on the human factors side of nuclear power. In particular, NEA "has created a new division to support its member countries in their efforts to further improve the human side of nuclear safety." The new Division of the Human Aspects of Nuclear Safety consolidates activities in the areas of training, safety culture and public communications, and encourages greater focus on such areas within member countries.

In fact, I'm more than just pleased.  I'm very gratified.  One of my areas of personal interest for the last dozen or so years has been knowledge management.  Knowledge management includes issues associated with assuring adequate training and other actions to assure that knowledge is transferred effectively within an organization.  My personal involvement in this latter area began when I was in the Office of Nuclear Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy and continued when I moved to the OECD/NEA as Deputy Director General from 2004 to 2007.  I therefore feel particularly pleased that the NEA has increased the attention it is devoting to training, as that will inevitably help with the knowledge management issues I tackled during my tenure there. 

In more recent years, I've become very engaged in explorations of the issue of safety culture as well, and have made a number of presentations in this area.  Safety culture is another important aspect of the enhanced human factors work the NEA says it will be doing, and I'm pleased to see that as well.  While both issues have been getting more attention at technical conferences and in other venues, and safety culture, in particular, has gotten a lot of attention since the Fukushima accident, I have still sometimes felt that work related to the human element was a footnote for many people in the nuclear field, and that a lot of engineers sometimes feel that you can completely engineer out the potential for people to affect the performance of a facility negatively.

I believe it is particularly valuable for safety culture to be addressed at an international level.  Since Fukushima, there is a growing recognition that there are some traits that have a societal connection--independence versus conformity, going along versus rocking the boat, etc.  There is less recognition that some of these traits are not all good or all bad.  Almost any human trait, carried to an extreme, has a downside.  There is also not enough recognition that individuals within a culture vary a great deal--and even more important, that people can be retrained to overcome behaviors they may have been taught.  What better place to deal with such issues than an international organization, where people of different cultures can have a chance to see how other cultures view issues of behavior at a nuclear facility, and can learn from each other?

I have had less personal involvement with public communications, although in some of my roles, particularly when I served as president of the American Nuclear Society (ANS), I have certainly had a chance to see the important impact public opinion can have on nuclear power, how public perceptions can be distorted by biased reports, and how important timely, accurate public information can be.

I therefore applaud the direction NEA is taking, and look forward to them making important contributions in the future to human factors issues in the nuclear area, including training, knowledge management, safety culture, and public communications.


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