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Safety Culture, Ethics and Risk

As said above culture is concerned with, (1) The act of developing the intellectual and moral facilities, especially by education, and (2) The integrated pattern of human behavior that includes thought, speech, action and artifacts on man's capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.

With respect to safety culture in Japan, Reuters News Service, in a July 4, 2013 article entitled, “Japan says building nuclear safety culture will take a long time,” begins with the statement:

Japan's nuclear regulator said on Thursday that elevating safety culture to international standards will “take a long time”, (just) days before new rules come into effect to avoid a repeat of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011.

The article quotes the new Japanese Nuclear Regulation Authority Chairman as stating:

The new regulations include extremely stringent requirements that the operators would not be able to endure if they don't change their culture. We will need a long time to change this culture, but day-to-day efforts to meet those tough standards will in the end lead to improvement in the safety culture.

As described below, the difficulty in meeting these international standards cannot be overemphasized. The accidents at the Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986) nuclear power plants brought renewed international focus on the importance of a strong safety culture in the design, construction and operation of nuclear power plants internationally. Indeed, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) published a report [15] aimed at providing guidance to member states in their efforts to provide a sound safety culture for their (nuclear) organizations. The Forward to this report states:

The concept of safety culture was first introduced by the International Safety Advisory Group (INSAG-4), formed by the IAEA. In their report [16] they maintained that the establishment of a safety culture within an organization is one of the fundamental management principles necessary for the safe operation of a nuclear facility. The definition recognized that safety culture is both structural and attitudinal in nature and relates to the organization and its style, as well as attitudes, approaches and the commitment of individuals (emphasis mine) at all levels in the organization.

The IAEA report goes to considerable length to describe the general concept of culture. Two important points made in the IAEA report are worth noting here. First, the nature of culture is very complex, and second, there is no right or wrong culture. Regarding the first point, culture is deep (not a superficial phenomenon), it is broad (it impacts virtually all aspects of life), and it is stable (it provides meaning and makes life predictable). Hence it is very difficult to change. And with respect to the second point, there is no better or worse culture, except in relation to what a group or organization is trying to do. Said another way, the operators at Fukushima were attempting to manage multiple core-melt accidents at once, but were looking for collective solutions from higher authorities when individual actions were required. As I will argue throughout this paper, it is this latter point that may have contributed to the accident at Fukushima and it is the former point that will make elevating safety culture to international standards a very difficult and prolonged task in Japan.

As also noted in the IAEA report, the levels of culture go from the very visible (explicit) to the tacit and invisible (implicit). The report describes three levels of culture, Artifacts and Behavior (explicit), Espoused Values (strategies, goals and philosophies—which can be elicited) and Basic Assumptions (unconsciously held and usually tacit). Of particular interest in understanding any culture, are the fundamental beliefs that are so taken for granted that most people in a cultural group subscribe to them, but not in a conscious way, i.e. they are implicit.

As to a more precise and succinct definition of safety culture, the IAEA report cites the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Policy Statement on the Conduct of Nuclear Power Plant Operations [2], which defines safety culture as:

The necessary full attention to safety matters and the personal dedication and accountability of all individuals (emphasis mine) engaged in any activity which has a bearing on the safety of nuclear power plants. A strong safety culture is one that has a strong safetyfirst focus.

The recently published U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Safety Culture Policy Statement (U.S. NRC 2012) [17] expands the focus to all regulated entities and defines safety culture as follows:

Nuclear safety culture is the core values and behaviors resulting from a collective commitment by leaders and individuals (emphasis mine) to emphasize safety over competing goals to ensure protection of people and the environment.

Both the IAEA and the U.S. NRC emphasize that safety culture rests with individuals and leaders in any organization. The notion of the individual as opposed to the collective stems from the European Enlightenment, a cultural shift that took place in the eighteenth century: individual rights, individual duties and individual responsibilities that are essential to a strong safety culture, and which may be incongruent with the societal culture of Japan as articulated by the Commission Chairman cited above.

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