Culture for safety, handling the risk
The concept of safety culture was developed in the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident, in 1986. The way events occurred in the Soviet nuclear power plant leading to the worst nuclear accident – at that time – was considered an example of a giant loophole in safety culture at many levels. Moreover, Chernobyl was a clear reminder of the risk associated with the nuclear industry — a risk that had to be “contained” within the installation itself as far as possible (as was the case with the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in the USA), and if not, the radiological consequences dealt with (exclusion zones, building of a dome over the damaged reactor etc.).
The concept was first introduced in the IAEA publication INSAG-1 (1986) and further expanded in INSAG-3 (1988) and INSAG-4 (1991).
In this latter document, the term was explicitly defined as: “that assembly of characteristics and attitudes in organizations and individuals which establishes that, as an overriding priority, protection and safety issues receive the attention warranted by their significance”.
This definition represents progress compared with earlier IAEA definitions to the extent that INSAG-4 highlights an important feature of safety culture, i.e. its two fundamental sides. First, safety culture is structural (organisational structure, roles and responsibilities, documentation, policy statement…). Second, safety culture is attitudinal (perceptions, social norms, way of thinking, and patterns of behaviour).
Later, in 2013, INPO (Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, USA) proposed a new version of this definition(*):
“Nuclear safety culture is defined as the core values and behaviors resulting from a collective commitment by leaders and individuals to emphasize safety over competing goals to ensure protection of people and the environment.”
This updated definition, INPO said, was designed to apply broadly across all industries that use nuclear technologies (not only reactors)insists the INPO. It was introduced in a document trying to propose ways towards a “healthy nuclear safety culture”.
(*) A definition adopted by WANO (World Association of Nuclear Operators: Principles PL 2013-1, Traits of a Healthy Nuclear Safety Culture, whose “baseline” is: “Global Leadership in Nuclear Safety.”
These definitions lead to a clear view of nuclear safety culture:
“Nuclear safety is a collective responsibility. The concept of nuclear safety culture applies to every employee in the nuclear organization, from the board of directors to the individual contributor. No one in the organization is exempt from the obligation to ensure safety first.”
The same traits apply not only to nuclear reactors, where safety should be the overriding priority, but also to radiological safety, industrial safety, security, and environmental safety.
Key dimensions of safety culture
The International Nuclear Safety Journal (INSJ) summarizes the INPO dimensions of safety culture and perhaps gives one of the most understandable definition of culture for safety:
Everyone is personally responsible for nuclear safety; Leaders demonstrate commitment to safety; Trust permeates the organization; Decision-making reflects safety first; Nuclear technology is recognized as special and unique; A questioning attitude is cultivated; Organizational learning is embraced; Nuclear safety undergoes constant examination.
Organisations with a positive safety culture are characterised by communications founded on mutual trust, by shared perceptions of the importance of safety and by confidence in the efficacy of preventive measures.