Filled with clear and illuminating examples of lessons learned by US nuclear operators, this book is a recommended read for management at nuclear power plants around the world. By Joseph Somsel
Nuclear Energy Leadership intends to share some insight into the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of the phenomenal improvement in the management of US nuclear power plant operations over the last four decades.
Who is the author’s intended audience? In part, it is oil and gas operators. The author makes explicit reference to the transfer of US nuclear power management practices to the oil and gas industry, especially in light of the recent huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Probably more to the point, nuclear plant operators in other countries will appreciate learning how structural, cultural, and tactical changes within the organizations running US nuclear plants have made for such an improved track record of production and safety. Lastly, many within the US nuclear industry will appreciate a more comprehensive overview of our efforts to create a ‘safety culture’ with ‘operational focus.’ Those who will get the most out of this book will have faced similar challenges in their own career.
Left largely unsaid is the matter of changing incentives, which was the root cause of all the improvement. The original planners of nuclear power would commonly assume a 70% capacity factor in their economic projections. Early operations fell far short of that assumption. But in the regulated utility environment, it really didn’t matter how much power the plants offered to the customer; classic rate-base accounting gave a return on investment, not on production. Company lawyers facing the state rate regulator seemed more vital to the company’s fortunes than the engineers and operators.
The early plants went into operation believing that the technology was fully-developed, based in part on prior US naval nuclear reactor experience. The Three Mile Island accident disabused the industry of that misconception. More importantly from a management perspective, owners saw a billion-dollar asset turn into a huge liability. On the individual career level, the nuclear management team was completely replaced. From that date, there was a complete sea change in attitudes from the top down: the prospect of losing your job overnight has a way of clarifying the mind, as has been long noted. Protection of the plant became a real and very tangible motivator. The issue of public safety has never been far from mind, but a radiological accident affecting the public is many orders of magnitude less likely that its predecessor, core damage, and even that incident would turn one’s asset into a worthless mess.
The result of increased awareness of the financial risks of inadequate nuclear safety, and the increasingly competitive market for electricity following deregulation of electric markets in the latter part of the 20th century, has put a heightened emphasis on production, but only when done safely. Everyone in the stakeholder chain now realizes that commercial nuclear plants can be very profitable, albeit a high-stakes gamble should something go wrong.
Most of topics covered in the book could be generally recognized as good management practices anywhere, yet here they are approached from a nuclear-specific view with many illuminating examples from real plants. First-line supervision is one of the most difficult jobs in any organization but the pressures for modelling effective behaviour in the nuclear industry certainly are great. Teamwork amongst the site management team is also vital: staff in isolated departmental silos can easily work at cross-purposes and block communications up and down the chain. Accountability to the larger organization seems obvious but hasn’t always been workable in practice.
The fact that the book is based on US practice and personnel begs the question of how portable the guidance here will be to other cultures operating nuclear power plants. In the US, early efforts by the regulator to suppress ‘cowboys’ at the controls and in management definitely improved procedure compliance and added some predictability to plant operations. On the other hand, the Japanese cultural trait of rigorously-hierarchal behaviour might cause different problems such as coping with unstructured situations. In fact, the IAEA has commissioned former chairman of the US NRC, Nils Diaz, to look into this very issue.
A topic that Fukushima highlighted but is not covered in the book is crisis leadership. While the book does cover personnel issues (the pluses and minuses of hiring former military into the organization), how one leads from the front in an accident during periods of great stress, uncertainty, and personal danger is unexplored. In spite of our best efforts at predicting what challenges the universe holds for our designs, there will always remain the ‘unknown unknowns.’ As Fukushima illustrated, we must do what we can to prepare our people to rise to any challenge with the tools they might need.
In summary, the book is written in a readable style with many clear, understandable, and digestible examples. A copy should be bought by every English-speaking chief nuclear officer on the globe and widely circulated amongst middle and upper plant management. The staff of safety regulatory authorities charged with overseeing day-to-day operations would also benefit, as would corporate officers.
About the reviewer
Joseph Somsel is a degreed nuclear engineer with a master’s in business administration and experience at operating nuclear utilities, reactor vendors, and architect/engineers. Currently, he is leading Fukushima-related enhancements at a US nuclear power plant.
Nuclear Energy Leadership: Lessons Learned from U.S. Operators (ISBN # 9781593702458) by Mary Jo Rogers, is published by Pennwell. It is available to purchase for $79