First impression

4 March 2011

Over the last few months, I have had the good fortune to visit my first PWR and BWR.

One of the things that I really enjoy when walking around nuclear power plants are the posters in the men’s toilets. Before you jump to conclusions, let me explain; I have been to a few sites now where the safety guys post up a single page lesson learned or good practice case study in foreign material exclusion, or radiation dose protection. Partly, I like the idea of constant reinforcement of safety principles, even while using the urinal.

Partly I like it because they are a window inside the plant’s culture, to which I am not really privy. And however warm and generous my hosts, I do feel my status as an outsider when I visit.

Obviously nuclear power stations are located in the middle of nowhere for radiation protection reasons in case of a worst-case accident. The remoteness, the security cordon around the station, and its large internal population of workers makes it feel like a fortress or a jail. From the inside, the complexity of its operations and the politics between different departments seem to me to create a sense of inward-looking insularity.

As I walked around these stations I was intimidated by the security precautions and the barrier checks. But most of all, I felt uneasy about all the rules: hold the handrail as you go down the stairs; don’t touch anything; don’t cross the painted line; no entry.

I understand that the rules protect me, and protect the reactor, and I agree that both are worthy. I appreciate that the safest thing may well be to not even admit a clumsy, indiscreet, disobedient, nosey and potentially malicious outsider tramping around the plant—as I must seem to them. And I had not had a basic induction, which could require a whole week. I knew that I was not as accountable to management as a staff member: I didn’t belong there.

So I was tempted to fall into a kind of cowed uneasiness as I walked around the plants, unsure whether I was following all of the rules, but not making any sudden movements just in case someone might shout at me if I did. Occasionally on the tour, I passed a door–and if a nuclear plant has anything, it has doors–and wondered what was inside. And then I wondered whether I should ask. Maybe I shouldn’t be asking; by what right exactly was I allowed to know? What did it matter anyway?

As a journalist, I have learned to be wary of this feeling; it is a sign that something has gone wrong. In my job, I rely on constantly generating questions. But when rational thinking gives way to emotion, I stop asking questions and start nodding. The brain switches off, and no more work gets done.

In retrospect, I found my first station experiences a little overwhelming. But this was no more than a case of newcomers’ jitters, and came from my personal status as a non-expert outsider. I am not used to having my actions so proscribed in my day-to-day office-based life. This in itself is not significant; but it did point out the potential for a kind of cultural blind spot to form.

I see how nuclear stations need to be lawful places where everyone obeys the rules, for safety, security and productivity reasons. In such places, safety officers cannot expect everyone to understand how the plant works in detail—but they still have to follow the rules.

What is at risk here is the alert mind and questioning attitude that I believe is a fundamental component to working safely. I understand that the reasons behind the rules are just as important as the rules themselves, if not more so. But reasons are easy to lose in such a technically complex environment, where there are lots of specialists but few generalists. Comprehension depends on managers’ knowledge, skill and desire to pass on the reasons. In my tours I had some excellent guides; but I wonder if every manager in every station has the resources to explain everything about the station to their staff and contractors.

It is easy to tell people what to do; it is harder to tell them why. But I think the answer to the second question is more important; in fact, I think it is a key component of nuclear safety culture. Employees should not merely follow the rules, they should participate in them. Otherwise, they will not understand what is at risk when they break them.

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