Within the week, I read two headlines whose pairing is striking. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the construction of the first two U.S. nuclear power plants in 30 years. Second, Roger Boisjoly’s death was announced.
No doubt you’ve read about the NRC’s decision and likely the reactions it has generated. Many are enthused envisioning less costly energy and more jobs. Others fear the risks will eclipse the benefits. Their concerns can be summed with the mention of Three Mile Island and Fukushima as well as other industrial disasters like Massey Coal and Deepwater Horizon.
My guess is that it’s far less likely that you’ve heard of Roger Boisjoly. I hadn’t until I chanced upon his recent obituary. My hope is that Mr. Boisjoly’s experiences be considered and incorporated into the design of the culture, selection and training of work leaders and teams for these nuclear facilities.
First, I’m sure that the Southern Company, which is building the plants, has, and will, consider every design and safety consideration imaginable. Already, years have been spent reviewing plans, testing scenarios, building in redundancies and considering potential disasters like planes crashing into towers and earthquakes. Still, there are bound to be events that haven’t been considered and some unrevealed risks lurking in the complexity of running a nuclear system. Here’s where Mr. Boisjoly’s sad experience and ours needs to be remembered.
On January 28, 1986, Boisjoly worked as an engineer at Morton Thiokol involved with space shuttle operations. He feared that the morning’s frigid conditions would endanger NASA’s space shuttle voyage. Sixth months earlier, he had written an urgent memo arguing that the effects of cold needed to be studied in terms of its impact on booster bindings. Hours before ignition, he pleaded to delay the flight fearing a disaster if Challenger took to the sky. His bosses rejected his warnings. He and many of us watched it explode 73 seconds after its launch snuffing out 7 heroic lives. For many years after, Mr. Boisjoly’s career and life suffered. How different all would have been had others listened.
Ultimately, who works at Georgia’s latest nuclear facilities and the culture that encourages them to raise and listen to issues may be as important as the plants’ design and multiple safety systems. Overall, the goal should be to select staff and contractors who not only have superb technical credentials but the behavioral traits and skills to raise and welcome concerns, listen non-judgmentally and weigh them objectively.
Nearly twenty years ago, I worked with a troubled nuclear facility. Employees would either not raise safety concerns or often claim retaliation when they did. I interviewed many employees. I remember one person’s comments in particular: “You have to have a manager who will listen all the time whenever issues arise, whatever they are, otherwise you just won’t talk to that person when you think there’s a problem but aren’t completely sure.” From anonymous managers, I also learned that how issues are raised in terms of clarity and tone will also influence how they are “heard” and handled.
The fastest, safest way to find out about problems is when team members speak directly to their leaders who listen to what they have to say, take steps to investigate problems and let individuals know how their concerns have been reviewed. This is a matter of culture that must be consciously built and nurtured.
So here are a few suggestions as we enter the next era of nuclear power. Operators should:
- Implement specific behavioral models regarding how to raise a concern, from what is said to how it’s said; a similar model must be applied for those receiving and following up on concerns.
- These skills include managing non-verbal behaviors – how issues are raised including tone and body language and how people react are as important as exactly what’s said and the “proper” procedural response.
- Assure that these clear behavioral principles are explained, reinforced by leaders and team members and periodically tested by simulations in the same way technical problems are.
- Measure how individuals demonstrate these skills. If those in leadership or team roles can’t master and consistently apply key behaviors, replace them with those who do and will.
When computerized gauges flash warnings or sirens go off, people stop and focus immediately. Humans often see dangers before electronic alarms are activated. Their warnings must be heard just as effectively. That would be a fitting way to remember Mr. Boisjoly.