Safety Culture Paramount After Fukushima, NRC Chairman Says

"We believe that by weaving the lessons learned from Fukushima into nearly all of our regulatory activities, we are ensuring their long-term sustainability," NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane said Sept. 17.

Allison Macfarlane, chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said safety culture is a key lesson of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan and told an international audience at the International Atomic Energy Agency's annual General Conference in Vienna, Austria, that it is important to avoid focusing on planning for a single type of accident.

"We must remember that natural hazards come in many forms," she said, according to a transcript posted at www.nrc.gov. "We should not focus on planning for the next 'expected' accident, but rather have measures in place to address a variety of permutations. Our focus on external events must continue to be broad to make nuclear reactors worldwide as safe as possible," Macfarlane said.

"The establishment of strong safety culture principles by operators is only part of the issue," she said. "It is critically important for all countries to have strong inspection and enforcement programs with transparent processes and objective criteria. Workers in the nuclear industry need a questioning attitude and an environment in which they feel free to raise safety concerns. I view this as a challenge that the nuclear regulatory community is facing collectively. In the United States, we have not only incorporated a safety culture assessment into our oversight program, but we are also bound by broader legislative requirements, like provisions to protect 'whistleblowers' so that individuals feel they can report on safety concerns and violations without jeopardizing their careers. Without clear regulatory and legislative criteria, it is difficult to understand how safety culture can be effectively overseen. I say this because, even with all of these provisions in place, safety culture is still a challenge for the United States to promote and assess.

"As we move forward in the evolution of our nuclear safety culture, we must address that the fact that the majority of post-Fukushima activities were placed in special categories. In the period immediately following Fukushima, this approach made the most sense. In the United States, for example, we established a task force to address the impacts of the accident on our domestic program, and then a special Fukushima-related directorate to implement the ensuing recommendations. The NRC is now beginning to transition these Fukushima lessons-learned programs from special, segregated actions back to the offices that handle these matters on a routine basis. Far from minimizing these activities’ importance, this approach will ensure that the lessons we have learned are fully integrated into our regulatory work in the United States. We believe that by weaving the lessons learned from Fukushima into nearly all of our regulatory activities, we are ensuring their long-term sustainability, and encourage our international colleagues to do the same."

A geologist, Macfarlane became NRC’s chairman in July 2012. According to an NRC news release, while in Vienna she will sign bilateral agreements that contribute to sharing global nuclear safety expertise. Mexico, Switzerland, Jordan, Korea, and Turkey will sign these agreements with the United States.

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