A Systems Approach to Crisis Preparedness and Organizational Resilience

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Salem Nuclear Power Plant trip

Wednesday, March 19, 2014:  Visit to PSEG Salem NJ Nuclear Power Plant (Pics)

To read: Chapter 1 of Managing the unexpected: assuring high performance in an age of complexity by Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe, "Managing The Unexpected: What businesses can learn from High Reliability organizations"

Review: Normal Accident Theory and Nuclear Power

Why we're going:  Thirty years ago, nuclear power seemed to many a reckless and needlessly dangerous undertaking, a view environmental activist and businessman Amory Lovins expressed when he said, "Using nuclear power to boil water is like using a chainsaw to cut butter." Reckless because of well-grounded observations that is impossible to prevent accidents in sufficiently complex systems, that accidents in fact are normal. The early days of nuclear power seemed to bear out Normal Accident Theory, not only with the Chernobyl disaster, but near-disasters at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, as well as insidious, if less dramatic, undermining of public health and safety.  (See Dave Barry on Concerns about Radioactive Insects found at the Hanford Nuclear Complex.)

But 21st century US and European nuclear power plants [1], like many other High Reliability organizations (HROs) have extraordinarily good safety records. They've done it, in part, by transitioning from contingency planning, i.e. developing protocols for every conceivable scenario to developing generalized skills of preparedness and rapid response (resilience). 

Surprisingly, much of the best organizational learning insight on resilience comes from research on HROs. Given the risks, one might think that HROs, unlike budding entrepreneurs, could not afford even the most remote possibility of error. Indeed, efforts to secure safety in nuclear power plants and other HROs once entailed writing highly detailed procedure specification, documentation, and closely monitoring compliance. But such efforts can be self-defeating:

… the increased burden of procedures and supervision can be perceived by maintenance employees as mistrust and regimentation. This may result in loss of motivation, blind compliance to procedures that may still be incomplete, malicious compliance when workers know the right thing to do but also know that only rote compliance is safe from disciplinary action, the departure of skilled workers who find more interesting work elsewhere, and, ultimately, more problems. [1] 

At some point, they cut back the protocols and began to develop the skills of resilience...

Steve Freeman February 1, 2013
News about the PSEG Salem Nuclear Power Plant:

February 1, 2013: Exelon's decommissioning cost estimates violated regulations: US NRC (Platts) NRC's Office of Investigations concluded after an investigation it began in September 2010 that Exelon employees "deliberately provided incomplete and inaccurate information" on decommissioning cost estimates for its nuclear plants to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission over a four-year period

Jan 31, 2013‎: Regulators allege Exelon mishandled reactor fund. (The News Journal) Power plants covered by the shortfall allegations include the Salem and Oyster Creek facilities in New Jersey, the Limerick and Peach Bottom plants in southeastern Pennsylvania, and mutlitple sites in Illinois. Although amounts were not disclosed, the letter described shortfalls as “significant,” ... the safe shutdown and dismantling of nuclear plants.

February 5, 2012: NRC delays review of PSEG Nuclear permit application needed for any new reactor in Salem County". (NJ.com)

May 3, 2011 PSEG Salem nuclear reactor off again, on again (The [NJ] Star-Ledger) Both PSEG Nuclear reactors in Lower Alloways Creek Township have been shut down in recent weeks—one reactor for a scheduled refueling, and a second unit because of several episodes of marsh grasses clogging the plant’s water intake from the Delaware River, according to PSEG Nuclear spokesman Joseph Delmar ... “This year it’s been historically the worst grassing we’ve seen the plant’s come online,” Delmar said. “There was a very wet winter. Also there was very significant rainfall about two weeks ago—we think that loosened the vegetation and material in the marshes surrounding the plant.”

Sep 7, 2010: N.J.’s Salem nuclear power plants showing their age. The operating license for the plants is due to expire and PSEG must convince the NRC that if permitted to operate for an additional 20 years, there will be minimal degradation over the ensuing decades and the ageing plants can be safely operated.

May 25, 2010: PSEG applies to build state's fifth nuclear power plant in Salem

May 5, 2009 PSEG Nuclear's three Salem County reactors get good grades...

February 5, 2008: NRC boosts oversight at PSEG NJ Salem 1 reactor (Reuters) The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission will increase inspections and oversight at Public Service Enterprise Group Inc's 1174-megawatt Unit 1 at the Salem nuclear power plant in New Jersey due to problems with the emergency diesel generators.


[1] The 2011 Fukushima, Japan disaster can perhaps be attributed to the insantity /desperation of placing a Nuclear power plant almost directly on top of one of the world's most active fault lines, rather than the dangers of Nuclear power per se.

[2] Carroll, John S. (1998) "Organizational learning activities in high-hazard industries: the logics underlying self-analysis." Journal of Management Studies 35(6): 699-717.

More on Nuclear Power


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Date Page Created: Mar 13, 2014 Last Page Update: Jan 22, 2015