ROCKVILLE, Md. - Nuclear safety experts have no official definition of it. They don't know how to measure it. But they desperately want it at each of the nation's 103 commercial nuclear plants.
That's the odd status of an idea called “safety culture,” the topic yesterday at an unusual session of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's safety advisory board.
The NRC Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards summoned experts to agency headquarters to help it decide whether to recommend that the NRC bolster its regulations with new rules on safety.
It would be an upheaval in government regulatory philosophy, with the NRC moving beyond setting rules for mechanical and electrical systems and venturing into the realm of management attitudes, leadership styles, and even corporate ethical values.
“We have no insight into the safety culture of the utilities,” noted Stephen Rosen, an advisory committee member.
Safety culture means the collection of characteristics and attitudes found in nuclear power plant owners and employees who put a high priority on safety.
“We need some mechanism for NRC to remove toxic leadership,” suggested David Collins, an engineering analyst at the Millstone Nuclear Power Station in Connecticut, noting that overbearing executives could diminish plant safety.
Like several other speakers and committee members, Mr. Collins, expressed reservations about extensive safety culture regulations. Existing rules, they said, could get the same result, if fully enforced by the NRC.
The NRC long frowned at the idea of regulating the attitudes and ideas prevailing at nuclear power plants, and in the 1980 even forbid use of the term, Thomas Murley said. He is a former NRC regional administrator who helped pioneer the idea.
“At long last, safety culture is back from the graveyard of forbidden lexicon in this country,” he noted at the workshop.
FirstEnergy Corp.'s Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station exhumed the idea. Investigators identified a defective safety culture at the plant as a major reason for the corrosion incident that has kept Davis-Besse shut down since February, 2002.
A leak of corrosive water, which plant managers overlooked for years while skimping on maintenance, ate a 4-inch by 5-inch hole into the Davis-Besse reactor vessel head. The vessel is a key safety system that keeps nuclear fuel and radioactive water inside the reactor.
“The principal causes of Davis-Besse were cultural,” said Jack Grobe, who heads a special NRC panel overseeing improvements at Davis-Besse. “I think this area is very critical,” he added, citing belief that other nuclear power plants may have similar problems.
Lew Meyers, FirstEnergy chief executive officer, told the advisory panel that safety culture improvements are among numerous changes made at the site, as it heads toward a projected restart date in August.
William Keisler, nuclear power consultant who worked at Davis-Besse in the 1980s, said that the plant's lax safety culture may be deeply ingrained, noting it has spanned three major changes in management.
The culture, he said, seems to result in serious mishaps at Davis-Besse every 8.5 years. He urged the reactor safeguards panel to recommend safety culture regulations and also demand that the nuclear industry issue a code for ethics for all its employees.
ACRS normally allots a maximum of two hours to important topics, Chairman Mario V. Bonaca said. “The decision to assign a full day to this topic gives you an indication of the importance we assign to it.”
George Apostolakis, who led the ARCS safety culture subcommittee, said there is no official definition of safety culture.
“I must admit that I really don't know what a good safety culture is and what a bad one is, and I suspect many of my colleagues don't either.”
The board discussed a range of possible actions, ranging from recommending that NRC regulate safety culture in cooperation with an industry group to taking no formal action and bolstering the safety environment in other ways.