Chapter 39: Safety Culture

This chapter was published on “Inuitech – Intuitech Technologies for Sustainability” on October 25, 2012.

In spite of the fact that safety culture cannot be directly regulated, every nuclear regulatory body around the world recognizes lucidly the criticality of nuclear plant operators developing, implementing, and maintaining a strong safety culture which represents a work environment where management and employees of the plants are dedicated to putting safety first with the objective to protect public health and safety.   The focus of a typical safety culture is to make sure that control room operators in each nuclear plant are:

  • Well trained and qualified for the jobs they are hired for;
  • Physically and mentally fit to carry out their duties; and
  • Attentive to plant status relevant to their responsibilities to ensure the continued safe operation of nuclear facilities.

At the same time it is also considered critical that management at each nuclear plant develop, implement, and maintain a professional working environment, ensuring that the licensed operator may be fully successful in discharging his or her responsibilities related to safety.

The International Nuclear Safety Advisory Group (INSAG) defines safety culture as “that assembly of characteristics and attitudes in organizations and individuals which establishes that, as an overriding priority, nuclear plant safety issues receive the attention warranted by their significance.”  Safety culture is also an amalgamation of values, standards, morals, and norms of acceptable behaviour. These are aimed at maintaining a self-disciplined approach to the enhancement of safety beyond legislative and regulatory requirements. Therefore, safety culture has to be inherent in the thoughts and actions of all the individuals at every level in an organization. The leadership provided by top management is crucial. Slide1The concept of safety culture is refined (Figure: 39-01) which proposes the following requirements on three levels:

1.     Requirements at policy level:

In any important activity, the manner in which people act is conditioned by requirements set at a high level. The highest level affecting nuclear plant safety is the legislative level, at which the national basis for safety culture is set. Similarly, an organization pursuing activities with a bearing on nuclear plant safety makes its responsibilities well known and understood in a safety policy statement. This statement is provided as a requirement to managers and staff, and to declare the organization’s objectives and the public commitment of corporate management to nuclear plant safety;

2.    Requirements on managers Level:

The attitudes of individuals are greatly influenced by their working environment.  The key to an effective safety culture in individuals is found in the practices molding the environment and fostering attitudes conducive to safety. It is the responsibility of managers to institute such practices in accordance with their organization’s safety policy and objectives; and

3.     Response of individuals Level:

The response of all those who strive for excellence in matters affecting nuclear safety is characterized by a questioning attitude, plus a rigorous and prudent approach, plus communication. The desired results are achieved only if the attitudes of individuals at all levels are responsive to the safety culture framework established by management.

INSAG defined the following characteristics for a good nuclear safety culture:

  • When any possible conflict in priority arises, safety and quality take precedence over schedule and cost;
  • Errors and near misses when committed are seen not only as a matter of concern but also as a source of experience from which benefit can be derived.  Individuals are encouraged to identify, report and correct imperfections in their own work in order to help others as well as themselves to avert future problems;
  • Plant changes or activities are conducted in accordance with procedures. If any doubt arises about the procedures, the evolution is terminated by returning the plant to a safe and stable condition. The procedures are evaluated and changed if necessary before proceeding further;
  • When problems are identified, the emphasis is placed upon understanding the root cause of the problems and finding the best solutions without being diverted by who identified or contributed to the problem; the objective is to find ‘what is right’ and not ‘who is right’;
  • The goal of supervisory and management personnel is that every task be done right the first time. They are expected to accept and insist upon full accountability for the success of each work activity and to be involved in the work to the extent necessary to achieve success;
  • Practices and policies convey an attitude of trust and an approach that supports teamwork at all levels and reinforces positive attitudes towards safety;
  • Feedback is solicited from station personnel and contractors to help identify concerns, impediments and opportunities to improve. Management reinforces an attitude of individual behaviour that leads staff to identify problems promptly and fully;
  • The organization has a commitment to continuous safety improvement and to manage change effectively;
  • Senior managers prevent isolationism and encourage the establishment of a learning organization;
  • Every individual, every supervisor and every manager demonstrates personal integrity at every opportunity that arises during the lifetime of the nuclear power plant; and
  • Every plant change, every meeting and every safety assessment is taken as an opportunity to teach, learn and reinforce the preceding characteristics and principles.

Building on the Principles for Enhancing Professionalism organization articulated the following eight principles for a strong Nuclear Safety Culture:

1.      Everyone is personally responsible for nuclear safety:

Responsibility and authority for nuclear safety are well defined and clearly understood. Reporting relationships, positional authority, staffing, and financial resources support nuclear safety responsibilities. Corporate policies emphasize the overriding importance of nuclear safety;2.

2.    Leaders demonstrate commitment to safety:

Executive and senior managers are the leading advocates of nuclear safety and demonstrate their commitment both in word and action.  The nuclear safety message is communicated frequently and consistently, occasionally as a stand-alone theme. Leaders throughout the nuclear organization set an example for safety;

3.     Trust permeates the organization:

A high level of trust is established in the organization, fostered, in part, through timely and accurate communication. There is a free flow of information in which issues are raised and addressed. Employees are informed of steps taken in response to their concerns;

4.    Decision-making reflects safety first:

Personnel are systematic and rigorous in making decisions that support safe, reliable plant operation. Operators are vested with the authority and understand the expectation, when faced with unexpected or uncertain conditions, to place the plant in a safe condition. Senior leaders support and reinforce conservative decisions;

5.     Nuclear technology is recognized as special and unique:

The special characteristics of nuclear technology are taken into account in all decisions and actions. Reactivity control, continuity of core cooling, and integrity of fission product barriers are valued as essential, distinguishing attributes of the nuclear station work environment;

6.      A Questioning attitude is cultivated:

Individuals demonstrate a questioning attitude by challenging assumptions, investigating anomalies, and considering potential adverse consequences of planned actions. This attitude is shaped by an understanding that accidents often result from a series of decisions and actions that reflect flaws in the shared assumptions, values, and beliefs of the organization. All employees are watchful for conditions or activities that can have an undesirable effect on plant safety;

7.      Organizational learning is embraced:

Operating experience is highly valued, and the capacity to learn from experience is well developed. Training, self-assessments, corrective actions, and benchmarking are used to stimulate learning and improve performance; and

8.    Nuclear safety undergoes constant examination:

Oversight is used to strengthen safety and improve performance.  Nuclear safety is kept under constant scrutiny through a variety of monitoring techniques, some of which provide an independent “fresh look.”

In order to ensure stability, reliability, and currency with the safety culture at each member Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) around the world, the IAEA had created the Safety Culture Assessment Review Team (SCART), a safety review service which reflects the expressed interest of Members States for methods and tools for safety culture assessment. The key objectives of SCART missions are:

  • To provide the host country (nuclear facility, regulatory body, other governmental authorities) with a valid assessment of the status of the safety culture in the host nuclear facility with respect to international standards;
  • To provide a method for identifying strengths and areas for improvement of safety culture at the host nuclear facility, so that the nuclear facility is assisted in the enhancement of its safety culture;
  • To provide the host nuclear facility with recommendations and suggestions for improvement in areas where performance falls short of international practice;
  • To provide key staff at the host nuclear facility with an opportunity to discuss their practical experience with specialists in safety culture;
  • To provide reviewers and observers from Member States and IAEA staff with opportunities to broaden their experience and knowledge in the area of safety culture; and
  • To provide all Member States with information regarding identified good safety culture practices.

SCART conducts periodical reviews at each NPP to make sure that:

1.     Safety is a clearly recognized value:

  • The high priority given to safety is shown in documentation, communications and decision making;
  • Safety is a primary consideration in the allocation of resources;
  • The strategic business importance of safety is reflected in the business plan;
  • Individuals are convinced that safety and production go hand in hand;
  • A proactive and long term approach to safety issues is shown in decision making; and
  • Safety conscious behaviour is socially accepted and supported (both formally and informally).

2.    Leadership for safety is clear:

  • Senior management is clearly committed to safety;
  • Commitment to safety is evident at all management levels;
  • There is visible leadership showing the involvement of management in safety related activities;
  • Leadership skills are systematically developed;
  • Management ensures that there are sufficient competent individuals;
  • Management seeks the active involvement of individuals in improving safety;
  • Safety implications are considered in change management processes;
  • Management shows a continual effort to strive for openness and good communication throughout the organization;
  • Management has the ability to resolve conflicts as necessary; and
  • Relationships between managers and individuals are built on trust

3.       Accountability for safety is clear:

  • An appropriate relationship with the regulatory body exists, which ensures that the accountability for safety remains with the licensee;
  • Roles and responsibilities are clearly defined and understood;
  • There is a high level of compliance with regulations and procedures;
  • Management delegate responsibility with appropriate authority to enable clear accountabilities to be established; and
  • ‘Ownership’ for safety is evident at all organizational levels and for all individuals.

4.      Safety is integrated into all activities:

  • Trust permeates the organization;
  • Consideration for all types of safety, including industrial safety and environmental safety, and of security is evident;
  • The quality of documentation and procedures is good;
  • The quality of processes, from planning to implementation and review, is good;
  • Individuals have the necessary knowledge and understanding of the work processes;
  • Factors affecting work motivation and job satisfaction are considered;
  • Good working conditions exist with regard to time pressures, work load and stress;
  • Cross-functional and interdisciplinary cooperation and teamwork are present; and
  • Housekeeping and material conditions reflect commitment to excellence.

5.      Safety is learning driven:

  • A questioning attitude prevails at all organizational levels;
  • Open reporting of deviations and errors is encouraged;
  • Internal and external assessments, including self-assessments, are used;
  • Organizational and operating experience (both internal and external to the facility) are used;
  • Learning is facilitated through the ability to recognize and diagnose deviations, to formulate and implement solutions and to monitor the effects of corrective actions;
  • Safety performance indicators are tracked, trended, evaluated and acted upon; and
  • There is systematic development of individual competences.

Fact of the matter is that nuclear safety begins at project conception, and a primary challenge is to ensure that the practices of a strong safety culture are applied from the outset of a project to avoid both latent and immediate deficiencies. Experience has shown that when the main focus is on technical aspects, project schedule and budget, insufficient attention may be given to human and organizational aspects. In some cases, the inadequate application of safety culture principles and practices in new build projects has been a contributing cause of safety issues during subsequent operation. Initial decisions have a significant influence on safety culture. This includes the important decision to select leaders who take ownership of their mandate to promote safety and who instill a strong safety culture in their organization. Leaders of new build projects often attain positions of influence in the nuclear industry and have a lasting impact on attitudes towards safety.

Many designers, project personnel and construction personnel eventually transfer into operating organizations, regulatory bodies, vendors or technical and scientific support organizations. New participants entering the nuclear field present experienced leaders with the opportunity and responsibility to promote practices that ensure that protection and safety issues are given priority over production, schedule and cost at all levels of the organization. New participants must understand the more stringent requirements and greater accountability that come with Nuclear Power Plant (NNP) projects compared with projects involving conventional plants.  The safety culture supports the goals of all participants: the desire of governments to have a secure energy supply; the mandate of regulatory bodies to protect the public and the environment; the desire of vendors to build safe NPPs to ensure future business; and the desire of utilities to produce electricity safely, without technical or administrative problems.

It is important for governments and their associated bodies to recognize how safety culture can affect a new build project, as well as the importance of ensuring that nuclear power programmes incorporate safety culture principles from the outset. Governments are tasked with ensuring that nuclear safety is explicitly addressed in national policy frameworks. They are responsible for conferring clear powers of oversight and regulation on national regulatory bodies during all phases. Government decision makers need to recognize that nuclear safety requires considerable investment. The impact of a nuclear power programme extends well beyond any specific project, thus national accountability for nuclear power programmes cannot be delegated to owners and operators.

Regulatory bodies need to influence, monitor and provide oversight of the safety culture during all pre-operational phases. They also need to establish their own safety culture and to recognize the influence of their safety culture on other participants. A common understanding and vocabulary among regulators, licensees and owners is of considerable value in promoting the safety culture.


  1. United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission;
  2. NSAG – Basic Safety Principles for Nuclear Power Plants;
  3. Building on the Principles for Enhancing Professionalism;
  4. IAEA Safety Culture Assessment Review Team (SCART) Guidelines; and
  5. IAEA Safety Culture in Pre-Operational Phases of Nuclear Power Plant Projects.

Chapter 40