Safety culture in nuclear installations

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) provides guidance to member states at various levels: safety fundamentals, safety requirements and safety guidance. In recent years, much attention has been given to the relationship between an adequate safety culture (as defined in the IAEA INSAG Series), an adequate management system and a safe operation of facilities (IAEA (2008) Nuclear Security Culture, IAEA (2010) The Interface between Safety and Security at Nuclear Power Plants).

This IAEA international guidance has evolved, and at present has penetrated into European legislation, and within the forthcoming Belgian legislation that is under preparation by the Federal Agency for Nuclear Control FANC/AFCN.

On-going projects

Although security is now high on the nuclear policy agenda, the security regime for nuclear installations and infrastructures is far less developed than the safety regime. At present numerous measures are taken to enhance security, such as increasing management oversight of security, building physical barriers around nuclear organizations, and changing the attitudes and behaviors of personnel. As scholars have studied aspects like nuclear safety, security, and innovation culture in relative isolation, there is a dearth of studies that examine how these cultures interrelate, and how they are enacted in organizational structures, principles, and through contextual variables. To remedy this shortcoming, a NST PhD researcher will analyze the dynamic interplay and the tensions induced between safety, security, and innovation at SCK•CEN. He/she will conceptualize the nature of these tensions and consider the implications of their coexistence for high-risk organizations, in particular those that are also concerned with research. The project is expected to improve risk and vulnerability theory and render organizations such as SCK•CEN more sociotechnically resilient and robust.

Safety governance in practice: a vulnerability approach

Our current line of work builds on previous research on safety culture. In 2016, a PhD by Nicolas Rossignol (University of Liège, supervised by Prof.  Fallon and Prof. Zwetkoff) developed a vulnerability analysis model for nuclear installations. He "opened the black box" of a classical Incident Reporting System, by examining normality break-ups, adaptive capacity, safety culture, and organizational factors.

This project constituted a tentative to overcome the technocratic risk analysis paradigm, in which risks are considered as objective, real and calculable. It also aims at contributing to another, complementary approach to deal with potential threats to complex socio-technical systems. Rather than focusing on specific hazards, the analysis of vulnerability implies focusing on the system under threat.

Several vulnerability analysis frameworks co-exist in different fields of research (e.g. Geography, Engineering, Psychology, Social Sciences). The development of the vulnerability analysis model in the framework of this project is inspired by these frameworks. A large literature review, interdisciplinary workshops and in depth field works (interviews, Focus Groups, Open Process Workshops) will contribute to building a sound model that will then be tested and refined accordingly. The model developed will rely heavily on social factors revealed through the use of participatory methods.

This vulnerability analysis model will shed light on interrelated social factors allowing innovative ways to deal with potential threats to socio-technical systems.

Contact: Michiel Van Oudheusden, Catrinel Turcanu

More information:

Rossignol, N., Turcanu, C., Fallon, C., and Zwetkoff, C. (2014). "How are you Vulnerable?: Using Participation for Vulnerability Analysis in Emergency Planning," Journal of Risk Research, Published online: 26 Sep 2014;

Rossignol, N. (2016). "On vulnerability and vulnerabilities of incident reporting." PhD Thesis. SCK•CEN and University of Liège.


Previous projects

Decision tools for assessment of safety culture in nuclear installations

The IAEA generic guidance will lead to practical policy consequences at the Belgian level, including inspections and assessments by FANC. Therefore, a quick and user-friendly tool may contribute to the integrated assessment of safety culture and its evolution over time.

A first prototype of a decision support tool has been developed in 2012 based on SCK•CEN's accumulated research experience of intelligent decision support systems, in the framework of a post-doc research (Lusine Mkrtchyan). The tool implements a fuzzy set based approach to aggregating safety culture data. The approach developed provides a potentially useful approach for dealing with the inherent uncertainties and the qualitative evaluations specific to safety culture indicators.

Contact: Ahmed NagyCatrinel Turcanu

Safety culture: from official policy to day-to-day practice

A PhD project by Isabelle Fucks in collaboration with Liège University (Prof. Zwetkoff) focused on safety culture: the informal, day-to-day practices and understandings of safety on the work floor, as opposed to the official policy and formal regulations. In this research, the safety culture of SCK•CEN and of a French nuclear power plant were examined as case studies.

The research yielded descriptive information with regard to the safety cultures in both institutions and provided the SCK•CEN safety department with feedback about the internal safety culture that has been used to improve communication and policy making.

Particular attention was given to group dynamics at all levels and to the skills of the workforce. As safety culture exists independently of management initiatives, it is important to identify existent subcultures in order to build a bottom-up approach.

We also evaluated whether the safety culture concept as defined by the IAEA is an adequate description of the informal processes as well as the formal policy, and found it wanting. The research has led to the formulation of some new requirements (management commitment, follow-up, evaluation and viewpoints) at the level of IAEA.

Results of the research were presented during a special workshop for regulators, utilities and universities. This workshop addressed safety management in the broader context of both gas distribution safety and nuclear safety management.

This PhD project also led to some methodological insights with general relevance. It explored the use of group discussions (focus groups) as a tool to assess safety culture, and determined the conditions under which focus groups yield useful information. Development of these methods was followed up within the PISA team, and later implemented in other research and contract work (Pofficad, SEPIA,…).

Contact: Frank Hardeman

Reference:  Fucks, I. (2004). La culture de sûreté selon une démarche compréhensive Une contribution à la gouvernance des risques dans des systèmes complexes Volume II. Mol, Belgium  : SCK-CEN, 375p.