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The BP Disaster: Why Something Like It Could Never Happen at a Nuclear Facility

Margaret Harding's picture
4 Factor Consulting, LLC
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  • Sep 2, 2010 1:19 am GMT

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The post was co-written with James Malone, retired Vice President, Nuclear Fuels at Exelon. Jim has many years of experience in a variety of roles in the nuclear industry. I value his insight.

What is different in the nuclear industry?

New equipment used in safety-critical areas of the plant must be demonstrated to perform the function at least as well as original equipment. That includes testing under worst case accident conditions and detailed specification reviews to assure that the equipment is adequate for the job.  Equipment is tested to be sure that it remains completely functional during the upset.  It is also tested to make sure that it can perform its intended function over a period of time. For example, valves must be shown to maintain their ability to isolate segments during an event.  This requires verification of the seal and the mechanism that operates the valve.  The same logic applies to motors whether they are operating valves or pumps.

There is a regulation (10CFR21) that requires individuals to report anything they believe might be affecting plant safety. The utility is required to assess the concern and determine the impact on safety. The NRC has strict reporting requirements regarding these assessments. If an individual fails to report something, he or she can be held legally liable as individuals. Consequences include the potential for jail time.

Every operating nuclear power plant has a resident on-site NRC inspector. These folks are rotated periodically to prevent complacency on the part of the inspector or the utility. The inspectors review 10CFR21 investigations, watch activities, and generally assure that the utility is operating the plant safely.

There is an industry group, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), which requires all plants to file notices of incidents and near misses. Every plant operator and the major vendors watch that list and must evaluate the relevance of each report on their plant and operation.  In cases deemed by INPO to be important to safety the plant operators must not only review the information provided by INPO, but they must also respond in writing to INPO regarding their plans to implement actions that will preclude the event from occurring at their plant.

While INPO provides excellent service to the nuclear industry with respect to making all aware of an event, near miss, or condition anywhere, that is not the only way that INPO adds value.  INPO makes a significant contribution by constantly reviewing and strengthening the industry’s safety culture.  This function doesn’t get a lot of press coverage but the difference it makes cannot be denied.  Nuclear Safety is emphasized at every plant every day.  Everyone at each plant is aware of the importance of nuclear safety and all are encouraged to speak up if they observe any behavior that is not consistent with the Safety Culture.

INPO is built on trust and the trust goes in all directions.  It is within INPO, within each utility, between INPO and the utilities.  The trust is built on interaction between INPO and its members.  One of the best tools INPO uses is the Peer Review.  A Peer Review is a visit to a utility and its power plant(s) conducted by a team of INPO employees, employees loaned to INPO by utilities, and peers from other utilities with similar plants.  These teams review plant operations and check all aspects of the support provided by the utility’s corporate offices.  During these reviews the information provided by the utility to INPO in response to industry events is also discussed.  INPO reviews the utility’s plans to preclude events and provides feedback if they deem the response to be short of the mark.

INPO has also taught the industry how to strengthen its headlights in order to see events and  conditions as they develop rather than seeing them in the rear view mirror.  The term “Questioning Attitude” is used to encourage engineers and others to not accept information at face value.  The term “3 questions deep” becomes a strong tool for digging beneath the surface to get at the underlying assumptions.  Once understood, the underlying assumptions will either stand on their own or require revision.  In some instances the underlying assumptions are fine but the analysis built on them is flawed.  Again the questioning attitude comes in to play.  INPO reinforces the message that if it doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t.  In short, the questioning attitude gives everyone, not only permission, but a standing order to ask questions.

INPO has made a significant difference to the nuclear industry.  Looking at the operating statistics is impressive.  The U. S. nuclear plants averaged 90.5% capacity factor for 2009.  That is a remarkable achievement and INPO played a central role in supporting the industry’s performance improvement.  Without INPO it is not clear that the industry would be as healthy as it is today.

The INPO model could make a significant positive impact on the Oil and Gas Industry and improve the safety and environmental impacts of off-shore drilling. We believe it is one that the industry should look at.

Margaret Harding's picture
Thank Margaret for the Post!
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