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Nuclear Power Plants’ Safety Strategy Implementation Report

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Updated: May 20th, 2021

Risk Identification

Exposure to radioactive materials is a significant health and safety risk, as it can be dangerous to the life and health of individuals. Accidents on nuclear power plants are rare but devastating in their effects, which makes nuclear power plant a workplace with a critical risk to health and safety. The present report will seek to outline the risk and develop a comprehensive strategy for managing the safety or workers at operating nuclear power plants.

Background

Nuclear power plants use uranium or plutonium to produce energy. Each nuclear power plant has nuclear reactors, where nuclear fission takes place (Christodouleas et al., 2013). The energy released during nuclear fission is then used to heat water in order to produce steam, which spins turbines, generating electricity (Christodouleas et al., 2013). Nuclear power is a popular source of energy, as uranium and plutonium produce a lot more energy than the same amount of oil. Nuclear power plants are located all over the world, and nuclear power is growing in popularity due to the depletion of other resources (Siegrist & Visschers, 2013). Therefore, ensuring the safety of nuclear power plants is critical to protecting employees, the environment, and people living in nearby regions.

People at Risk

Nuclear plants employ a variety of workers, and each of them may be at risk in case of an accident. According to Morrow, Koves, and Barnes (2014), the United States has over 60 operating power plants that employ thousands of workers. Nuclear power plants also employ a wide variety of employees, and most of the work on-site. Reactor operators, scientists, mechanics, operators of heavy equipment, electricians, engineers, and managers are all involved in nuclear plant operations. Therefore, the number of people who are at risk while working on a nuclear power plant is rather high, and thus severe safety and risk management measures are required in order to protect a large and diverse workforce.

Risk Identification and Evaluation

Nuclear power plants use either uranium or plutonium to generate electricity. When undergoing nuclear fission, both materials release radioactive products, which can be damaging to health and safety if the precautionary mechanisms fail. For instance, during the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident, the meltdown affected the core of the nuclear reactor, causing the release of radioactive isotopes (Christodouleas et al., 2013).

A similar accident occurred in Chernobyl, where the overheating of the nuclear reactor caused an explosion, releasing radioactive materials into the atmosphere. Both events, as well as other nuclear power plant accidents, caused damage to the life and health of people. In addition, operating nuclear power plants can generate routine discharges of radionuclides, which also contribute to adverse health effects (United Nations, 2017).

Exposure to radioactive materials produces various effects on humans, depending on the concentration and time of exposure. The present review will focus on radiation exposure resulting from various accidents rather than casual exposure. Nuclear power plant accidents can result in high levels of exposure. The two most common health effects of high radiation exposure are acute radiation syndrome and radiation-induced cancer, both of which can be fatal (Wheatley, Sovacool, & Sornette, 2016).

In addition to radiation exposure, nuclear power plant accidents can cause deaths by fire or explosion. For instance, the incident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant caused “at least 573 immediate deaths from the evacuation, along with hundreds of future deaths related to cancer anticipated to occur” (Wheatley et al., 2016, p. 96). Thus, incidents that occur on nuclear power plants are critical and pose a significant risk to the life and health of workers.

Significance of Risk

Another critical aspect of identifying and evaluating the risk is estimating its significance. While the life and health risks of nuclear power plant accidents are evident, high-scale accidents, such as the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown or the Chernobyl explosions, are quite rare. In addition, after the 2011 disaster in Japan, there have been multiple efforts to improve the safety and stability of nuclear reactors, minimising the risk of future disasters.

For instance, according to Locatelli, Mancini, and Todeschini (2013), new nuclear reactors are designed in a way that prevents the escape of radioactive materials and cools down the core of the reactor to prevent explosions during unusual events. Nevertheless, studies show that the safety measures applied to some nuclear power plants are still inadequate, thus creating a significant risk of accidents. For instance, Lipscy, Kushida, and Incerti (2013) showed that there is considerable variation in the degree to which power plants all over the world are protected from accidents. Wheatley et al. (2016), on the other hand, estimate that there is a high chance that a high-level nuclear accident occurs every few decades.

In addition to major accidents, there are safety risks associated with the improper operation of nuclear power plants and nuclear reactors. For instance, nuclear power plants generate high amounts of radioactive waste, which is dangerous to the life and health of individuals (Perko, 2014). Improper handling of radioactive waste can also lead to radiation exposure, thus being another principal health and safety risk for employees working at nuclear power plants.

Overall, the risk to the life and health of employees of nuclear power plants is significant. Apart from engineered safety measures, including cooling systems and adequate protection of nuclear reactor cores, it is essential to use an appropriate risk management strategy to avoid damage to the life and health of employees. A comprehensive strategy for risk management should include adequate employee training and control measures to prevent mistakes during operations, as well as emergency management plans to reduce damage in case of an accident.

Risk Management Strategy

Ideally, a risk management strategy should improve the overall safety of the workplace, as well as minimise the risks identified in the previous part of the report. A mixture of direct and indirect controls would be required to achieve health and safety goals.

Direct controls related to the prevention of accidents and misuse leading to leakage of radioactive materials should include regular risk assessments, detailed procedures for all operations, as well as training for all employees who work with radioactive materials, nuclear reactors, or radioactive waste. Indirect controls, on the other hand, help to facilitate risk management by improving the overall safety climate of the organisation. In the case of a nuclear power plant, indirect controls would include incident investigation, emergency preparedness, and the development of a safety culture.

Direct Controls

The first direct control required to promote the safety of workers in a nuclear power plant is the risk assessment. Regular risk assessments are generally recommended for all types of facilities where there is a risk to the life or health of employees. However, when it comes to nuclear power plants, they are critical to ensuring safety. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA, 2016) recommends performing regular, comprehensive risk assessments to identify shortcomings in safety that could lead to leakage of radioactive materials or nuclear reactor malfunctions. The responsibility to carry out regular risk assessments lies with the organisation operating the plant.

Regular self-assessments can help to identify gaps in safety and performance that could affect the risk of incidents, leading to fatalities or damage to health. The key elements of the risk assessment process include developing suitable performance indicators, reviewing all systems and operations that pose a risk, identifying shortcomings, and developing a plan for improvement. In particular, the IAEA (2014) notes that a review of systems and operations of a nuclear power plant should involve an assessment of “personnel performance; attitudes to safety; response to infringements of safety; and violations of operational limits and conditions, operating procedures, regulations and licence conditions” (p. 15). Regular risk assessments can have a direct effect on the probability of an adverse event, thus promoting the safety of employees.

Another essential component of a risk management strategy is to avoid the misuse of machinery, equipment, or materials that pose a risk. For instance, any violation of safety rules during the processing or handling of radioactive waste can result in leakage, whereas the incorrect operation of a nuclear reactor could cause damage to some of its systems, leading to an accident. Thus, developing specific, step-by-step procedures for all operations contributing to risk is an essential direct control in minimising the risk of adverse events.

As noted by the IAEA (2016), the procedures for each operation concerning the nuclear reactor, waste disposal, and other related activities should be clearly identified and readily accessible for the staff. The key elements in this process are the review of appropriate standards for operations, development of procedures, approval of procedures by a regulatory body or a safety engineer, and distribution of procedures to the staff. In addition, the procedures should be regularly reviewed and updated, if necessary (IAEA, 2016). Finally, the employees’ compliance with the procedures should be monitored and corrected, as required.

Employee safety training is also a critical part of efforts aimed at minimising the possibility of adverse events. The IAEA (2016) stipulates the importance of ensuring that all employees involved in operating potentially dangerous processes possess the necessary qualifications and receive appropriate training. Safety training can help in increasing employees’ compliance with required safety procedures, thus having a direct effect on risk management in the chosen settings.

Moreover, safety training can have an indirect effect on risk management by improving safety climate throughout the organisation (Jafari et al., 2014). The key elements of safety training include identifying employees’ safety training needs, developing a comprehensive training plan, providing the training course, and assessing employees’ knowledge to ensure success. Similarly to previous direct controls, safety training requires regular review and adjustment. For instance, in case of any changes to procedures or operations, employees should receive further training to improve their understanding of the new processes.

Indirect Controls

Incident investigation is an essential part of safety management, as it assists in identifying safety gaps and correcting them to ensure the improved security of operations. Wachter and Yorio (2014) outline incident investigation as part of a comprehensive system of safety management, which was proven to reduce workplace accident rates. An appropriate system for incident investigation also requires an incident reporting scheme in place.

Once an incident is reported, the management should analyse the event to determine the underlying causes of it, such as equipment failure, lack of compliance with the procedure, inadequate training, and others. This process contributes to enhancing the overall safety climate in the organisation. However, it also adds to risk assessment and procedure development, which are among the direct controls outlined in the previous section. Gaining insight into the causes of various safety incidents can help the management to identify gaps in processes that pose a risk to health and safety and to correct the processes accordingly.

Emergency preparedness is a significant part of risk management in workplaces that are at risk of major accidents, including emergency plans. Emergency preparedness consists of various processes aimed at reducing possible damage in case of an accident. For a nuclear power plant, emergency preparedness efforts should include an evaluation of systems’ vulnerability to natural disasters and other external events (IAEA, 2017).

The incident on the Fukushima Daiichi power plant showed that natural disasters increase the risk of nuclear reactor malfunction. In addition, there are various other risks to nuclear power plants, such as floods, explosions, tornadoes, and terror attacks (IAEA, 2017). Determining vulnerabilities of systems to external conditions can assist in developing an accident management plan, thus enhancing emergency preparedness. In addition to this process, detailed procedures for various types of emergencies should be developed and made available to the staff. Emergency procedures can also be included in safety training to improve employees’ knowledge and confidence in responding to accidents.

Finally, managers can use emergency preparedness exercises to ensure that employees have the skills and knowledge to respond adequately in case of a crisis. In particular, it would be useful to assess the staff’s knowledge of evacuation procedures, as it can assist in saving lives in an accident. Bernardes, Rebelo, Vilar, Noriega, and Borges (2015) state that it is essential to identify behaviours that can obstruct smooth evacuation in an emergency, such as collecting personal belongings or waiting for instructions. Once such behaviours are defined, the management should provide additional training to correct them or adjust the emergency plans to account for behaviours that cannot be eliminated.

The process of emergency preparedness is connected to direct controls, such as safety training, risk assessment, and procedure development. By including emergency management in safety efforts, organisations can prepare their staff for unexpected situations and reduce the adverse consequences of accidents, thus promoting safety.

Lastly, creating and promoting a safety culture is important in ensuring the success of all other risk management efforts. Positive safety culture was proven to reduce workplace injuries and accidents, as well as in enhancing compliance with safety policies (Amirah, Asma, Muda, & Amin, 2013; Boughaba, Hassane, & Roukia, 2014). Therefore, safety culture is an important indirect control in the case of nuclear power plant accidents.

Safety culture can be improved using active team leadership and enhanced communication (Martínez-Córcoles, Gracia, Tomás, Peiró, & Schöbel, 2013). In addition, managers can use employee involvement strategies and performance incentives to improve safety culture (Boughaba et al., 2014). Creating a safety culture would contribute to direct risk controls by strengthening the workers’ motivation to achieve high safety performance and their understanding of safety practices, thus reducing the risk of accidents and minimising their consequences.

Overall, the direct and indirect controls described in the present section work together to generate a safer environment for workers of nuclear power plants. Continuous efforts in risk management can assist in decreasing the probability of accidents, thus reducing risks to the life and health of workers.

Barriers to Risk Management Strategy

Despite multiple precautionary measures, accidents in the workplace can happen, causing damage to the health of employees and residents of the nearby areas. The accounts of past accidents can be used to outline some of the common issues that act as barriers to risk management strategies and lead to safety gaps. As identified by Panckhurts, Bell, and Henry (2012) in the Royal Commission’s report on the Pike River Coal Mine tragedy in New Zealand, the underlying causes of large-scale accidents include unsafe processes, inadequate oversight, weak legal framework, and lack of emergency management plans.

All of these issues are also applicable to the case of nuclear power plants and thus contribute to the risk of adverse events. For example, poor evacuation preparedness is a significant factor that can affect the outcome of a nuclear power plant accident, increasing the damage caused by it. Lack of oversight, on the other hand, can also contribute to the risk of accidents by reducing the effectiveness of safety measures.

Other possible barriers and negative factors include lack of training or knowledge, inadequate procedures, poor working conditions, and impaired communication (Turoff, Hiltz, Bañuls, & Van Den Eeden, 2013). Some of these factors arise due to systemic failures or the lack of management’s contribution to safety processes. Others, however, occur due to decisions made by individual employees. Managing barriers to risk management strategy implementation can assist the management of nuclear power plants in improving safety and preventing accidents.

Addressing Barriers to Risk Management Strategy

Each of the barriers identified as part of the previous section can be addressed using a comprehensive approach to safety management. First of all, it is important to ensure the management’s commitment to safety, as it is strongly linked with safety outcomes (Mooren, Grzebieta, Williamson, Olivier, and Friswell, 2014). Given the significance of risks associated with nuclear power plant operations, the management should prioritise the safety of employees and operations at all times.

For instance, the management should be consistent in applying the present risk management framework to all operations that pose a risk of an accident. Also, the management should offer appropriate safety guidance and training for workers, even if it affects the plant’s productivity. Improving management commitment can assist in overcoming systemic barriers to risk management, as well as to decrease risk behaviours of employees and promote safe decision-making.

Another possible solution to some of the issues identified in the previous section is enhancing oversight. Poor health and safety oversight can cause problems at various stages of operations, from training to emergency decision-making. Specifically, enhanced oversight can help to prevent human errors. As sown by Manchi, Gowda, and Hanspal (2013), unsafe acts can be classified as errors or violations, and adequate oversight can help to prevent both types of unsafe acts.

For example, if a nuclear power plant operator repeatedly fails to comply with procedures, oversight can help to take correctional actions and ensure that the violation does not occur again, thus reducing the risk of an accident. To decrease the possibility of human error, oversight should include the supervision of all workers involved in critical operations. A supervisor can identify errors and report violations, as well as offer immediate help with an operational activity to prevent an adverse event. Additionally, organisations operating nuclear power plants should establish a system of health and safety oversight and hire employees to review all the safety initiatives within the organisation before implementing them.

Enhancing the overall safety climate is another strategy that can be helpful in overcoming the barriers to successful risk management. The term “safety climate” refers to the perception of safety goals, practices, and priorities within the organisation (Carayon et al., 2015). Safety climate leads to higher safety performance and contributes to organisational culture, thus improving employees’ attitudes while increasing workplace safety (Bosak, Coetsee, & Cullinane, 2013; Barbaranelli, Petitta, & Probst, 2015).

In order to build a healthy safety climate in the organisation, it is essential for the management to demonstrate appropriate values and provide suitable safety systems for workers. In this context, showing appropriate values should be understood as an emphasis on employee well-being throughout the organisation (Colley, Lincolne, & Neal, 2013). An example of appropriate values would be a comprehensive benefits package for employees and adequate insurance coverage. The management’s attitudes toward employee well-being reflect the company’s priorities and affect employees’ perceptions of safety practices within the organisation. Thus, it is vital for management to ensure that appropriate values are demonstrated in all aspects of human resource management.

In addition, the organisation should ensure adequate safety training of employees and provide mechanisms for risk reporting. While safety training can improve compliance with safety procedures, risk reporting can help the managers to identify and address any safety gaps that might affect the power plant’s functioning. For instance, if a worker reports an issue with radioactive waste security, the management will have a chance to implement additional safety measures to reduce the risk of accidents. Besides, the management should review and update safety procedures regularly and provide adequate safety information to all employees. Regular preparedness activities can also contribute to the safety climate of the organisation while also adding to the successful emergency response.

Lastly, the management’s cooperation with regulatory bodies can assist in overcoming some of the systemic barriers to safety. The use of nuclear materials for power generation is subject to strict control from the government and international organisations. Excessive regulatory oversight can be viewed as a burden, as it might interrupt standard work processes and affect the performance of a power plant.

Nevertheless, using the guidance and experience from control agencies can help in improving the safety of nuclear power plants. For example, many international agencies governing the use of atomic materials issue specific standards of safety that can be applied to nuclear power plants. Using guidance and experience or regulatory bodies and cooperating with them on safety issues can assist nuclear power plants in becoming safer for workers and strengthen their protection against accidents.

All in all, there are a few issues that can affect the results of risk management efforts in nuclear power plants. However, the management can avoid these issues by being committed to employee safety, enhancing the oversight of operations, creating a safety climate, and cooperating with regulatory bodies.

References

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Barbaranelli, C., Petitta, L., & Probst, T. M. (2015). Does safety climate predict safety performance in Italy and the USA? Cross-cultural validation of a theoretical model of safety climate. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 77(1), 35-44.

Bernardes, S. M. F., Rebelo, F., Vilar, E., Noriega, P., & Borges, T. (2015). Methodological approaches for use virtual reality to develop emergency evacuation simulations for training, in emergency situations. Procedia Manufacturing, 3, 6313-6320.

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