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Guest column: civilian nuclear power in the Middle East

By Craven Crowell

January 14, 2011
Financial Times

For commercial nuclear power to be successful in the Middle East, it must be supported by the development of a strong nuclear culture, which is by any measure a complex and difficult task.

Using the nuclear expertise of international companies by signing design and construction contracts is a good starting point, but it is people, not contracts, who build and operate nuclear plants.

Eager to diversify their energy sectors, countries in the Middle East such as the UAE, followed by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait and Qatar, are attempting to fast-track the development of a regulatory structure and multiple plants.

Achieving a nuclear culture committed to quality, safety, accountability, and performance is tricky anywhere, but the Middle East countries face the dual challenges of limited expertise and a unique labour market.

They can benefit from the regulatory expertise of US and European nuclear authorities and can hire contracting companies from abroad with design and construction experience. Unfortunately, qualified workers are scarce.

When the US began building nuclear plants in the 1960s, it recruited experienced personnel from the nuclear navy fleet and research reactors.

Today, nuclear facility owners and licensees should expect a struggle to recruit and retain staff.

Regardless of the rigour of contracts with design and construction companies, the facility owner assumes substantial operating, regulatory, and financial risk, and therefore must plan for and provide significant quality oversight during construction and maintain this diligence throughout operations.

This will be complicated by the region’s labour market. There will be a need to supplement local hires with international expertise.

Consequently, a nuclear site in the Middle East will contain a confluence of languages and cultures. Forging a common nuclear culture will be difficult, but paramount for a successful programme.

Based on the experiences of recent construction projects and operating nuclear sites elsewhere, we advise nations in the region to focus on three areas.

Training

From the day a contract is signed to build a nuclear facility, owners need to begin developing training programmes and should dedicate significant resources to this pursuit.

They will need a nuclear “training academy” to educate managers, reactor operators, engineers, and skilled labour on not just technical competence and safety standards but also cultural issues.

For example, a course that teaches that safety, not the supervisor, is the highest authority will help to overcome embedded cultural beliefs. Additionally, owners must embed training in long-term operations of the plant.

Communication

The message and tone must be set from the top.

Leaders, from senior executives to front-line supervisors, are responsible for delivering a consistent message of “safety first.” Non-verbal communication is just as important: a daily presence on the facility floor and calling attention to non-compliance or safety hazards will demonstrate leaders’ commitment to safety.

A comprehensive programme to address language barriers is also a must. Multi-lingual supervisors, training and critical plant signs in multiple languages will help ensure effective communication.

Performance measurement and improvement

Performance systems can foster improvement by rewarding desirable behaviour such as a questioning attitude, attention to detail, and the sharing of best practices.

Monitoring should start as soon as the plant construction begins. Outsourcing nuclear culture management to a contractor is a mistake – contractors are incentivised to meet cost and schedule targets, not create a safety culture. Owner personnel who will be involved in both construction and operation must keep their finger on the organisational pulse at all times.

A nuclear culture can prove difficult to assess.

We recommend using internal auditing as well as independent groups to monitor safety consciousness.

The Condition Report (CR) process is one example of a robust internal auditing programme that the US uses to track and correct plant deficiencies.

Facility owners should also hire independent companies to conduct surveys. Questions to ask might include: Does management put nuclear safety first at all times? Do workers fear retribution for raising safety concerns? Managers can use this data and develop cultural change programmes to address deficiencies in safety consciousness and promote a safer culture.


 

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