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Learning from the Transformation of Commercial Nuclear Power

Three Mile Island

Three Mile Island

They are now the most productive, the most reliable and the safest they have ever been:

  • U.S. nuclear power capacity factor has gone from 48 percent in 1971 to an average of 90 percent over the past decade.1
  • Nuclear electricity production costs dropped to 2.14 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2010.2
  • Total industrial safety accident rate was 0.09 (industrial accidents per 200,000 worker hours) in 2010.3 In fact, it is now safer working at a nuclear power plant than in a school setting.4
U.S. Nuclear Industry Capacity Factor 1971-2011

Part 1

U.S. Electricity Production Costs 1995-2010

Part 1

U.S. Nuclear Industrial Safety Accident Rate 1997-2010

Part 1

    How did the nuclear industry become safer, more reliable and more profitable while under such heavy scrutiny and regulation? And what can other industries learn from this transformation? The lessons learned through its practice and research program suggest that there are four key answers to these questions:

    • Industry leadership,
    • Self-regulation,
    • Evolution of a safety culture,
    • First-line supervisor.

    Role of Industry Leadership

    Forming INPO. In the aftermath of the TMI incident, utility CEOs recognized they were better positioned to address regulatory and plant performance challenges together than they were individually.5 To that end, they formed the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), which was incorporated in 1979 even before the President’s commission released its final report on the TMI accident at the end of that year.6 The World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) was formed after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

    Through INPO, U.S. industry leaders took it upon themselves to address the commission’s recommendations and figure out how self-regulation could work. Crucial to the success of INPO was the cooperation of senior leadership.

    Cooperation and Information Sharing. Particularly through its plant evaluation and training programs, INPO played a key role in improving reliability and safety. The industry’s cooperative approach to sharing information, best practices and even resources was a powerful factor in sustained performance improvements.

    A good example of this cooperation occurred at River Bend Station, which is owned and operated by Entergy. In 2006, the plant had a number of reactivity management issues that forced them to take power reductions and shutdowns to deal with problems that were going to impact the reactor fuel. One of their reactor operators contacted Ed McVey, Exelon’s manager of reactor engineering oversight, whom he had met at a meeting of the Reactivity Control Review Committee.

    Although Exelon and Entergy are competitors, Ed spent a week with the River Bend operations department, providing feedback and suggestions that they implemented very successfully over the next year. Ed’s decision to spend a week at River Bend was fully supported all the way up his management chain.7

    Self-regulation through INPO

    INPO’s overarching standard is excellence in operational reliability and safety, and their primary means of holding the industry to this standard are their regularly conducted in-depth assessments of all U.S. nuclear power plants.

    Each U.S. plant is evaluated once every two years against INPO’s performance objectives and criteria. As part of this process, an assessment team, including INPO personnel and experienced professionals from other nuclear sites, spends two weeks observing how the site functions and reviewing data on its operating units. The assessment team’s final report identifies strengths and areas for improvement, and plant leadership writes a response indicating what they will do to improve their problem areas.

    Part 1

    "You have to learn from the mistakes of others. You won't live long enough to make them all yourself"

    This advice is often atributed to Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, known as the "Father of the Nuclear Navy."

    Part of the impetus to improve and follow INPO’s counsel has come from peer pressure. For example, every year INPO holds a conference developed exclusively for CEOs, Chief Nuclear Officers and Senior VPs of nuclear operating companies. This includes a closed session in which the CEOs are presented with a forced ranking of best to worst performers. Lower-performing plants and the utilities that own them are thus strongly challenged to improve.

    This practice contributes to an important piece of the nuclear industry’s transformation, which is the sense that industry leaders have of being “hostages of each other.” In 1994, Joseph Rees’s book by this title described how the industry changed after the formation of INPO due to leaders’ belief that a disastrous incident at one plant would seriously impact the entire industry.8

    Evolution of a Nuclear Safety Culture

    A nuclear safety culture is defined by INPO as “an organization’s values and behaviors—modeled by its leaders and internalized by its members—that serve to make nuclear safety the overriding priority.”9 Last fall, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) officially defined safety culture as “the core values and behaviors resulting from a collective commitment by leaders and individuals to emphasize safety over competing goals to ensure protection of people and the environment.”10 INPO and the NRC both agree that safety culture includes having a safety-conscious work environment (SCWE), or an environment in which people feel free to raise safety concerns without fear of retribution.

    Safety culture does not just mean avoiding accidents and injuries and creating a SCWE. It also includes process rigor: defining the correct, safe way of doing something and ensuring it is consistently done that way. In Strategic Talent Solutions’ (STS) work with 35 different stations in the U.S. and England, it has become clear that building a stronger safety culture translates into getting better safety and production results in the long run. Field experience and the experience of senior leaders indicate that the following are useful ways to improve safety culture:

    • Ensure that members of the leadership team have high standards around safety and reliability, that these are reflected in their behavior and that they are holding the organization to these standards.
    • Identify, track and respond to precursors or small events before they have the opportunity to contribute to significant accidents.
    • Enforce the rigorous use of human error prevention tools. Nuclear power has built these simple practices (including peer checks, three-way communication and procedure adherence) into many of its processes to help ensure safety and reliability.
    • Regularly assess safety culture. Evaluate how safety norms and attitudes are actually demonstrated daily in behavior, decision-making and progress on safety results. This helps identify both the gaps in the safety culture and the areas in the organization that are most at risk.
    • Build self-criticality and a learning orientation. Plants and companies that are willing to be open about performance are also in a better position to preempt problems because they identify them proactively. They are also more open to feedback from others in the interest of learning and improving.

    Professionalism and Elevation of the First-Line Supervisor

    The fourth key to sustaining improvements in the nuclear industry is the transformation of the first-line supervisor (FLS). Many years ago, the FLS was a foreman or step-up lineman; a “union guy” who was typically not necessarily aligned with senior management. The FLS functioned essentially as an experienced pair of hands working alongside the craftsmen and expediting work.

    After TMI, there was a push for more extensive training, greater professionalism and a more important role for the FLS.11 And although training subsequently improved, INPO analyses in 2004 led to the conclusion that supervisor weaknesses were still one of the most common causes linked to plant performance problems.12 INPO emphasized that supervisors need to be in the field, but also need to have a greater oversight role, confront worker behaviors and be more aligned with site leadership.

    In an STS research study on what makes first-line supervisors most effective, the authors found that supervisors who felt more like members of the management team were more effective at their jobs. And the most powerful ways to get supervisors to show that alignment were to: (1) treat them as core members of the management team, (2) give them enough time with their own managers and (3) tell them the reasons behind major decisions.13

    Shift change. Over the next several years, the transition of the FLS to the management team will become increasingly critical for nuclear, as well as other industries. As an aging workforce of experienced supervisors and workers near retirement, a new generation of supervisors must step in to replace them. What we have seen work in this situation is pairing the experienced workers with the new talent in a mentoring capacity that mimics the apprenticeship model. In this way, they are more apt to get engaged because they have a junior counterpart looking up to them. They also may be more likely to feel needed in a way that isn’t as physically demanding, but instead taps into their wisdom and potential desire to leave a legacy.


    The nuclear power industry has changed dramatically since TMI and Chernobyl, and both reliability and safety have improved significantly in a highly regulated environment. The four ways in which other industries can learn from this transformation are:

    • Taking leadership of change—and thereby taking control of your future.
    • Self-regulation—use lessons learned from the formation of INPO, adapting to other industries.
    • Building a safety culture that gets results in reliability.
    • Transforming the first-line supervisor through better engagement and alignment with senior management.
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