Managing the gaps in a regimen of control - Operational decision making at a nuclear power plant
Abstract: Nuclear power has significantly improved performance over the last thirty years. This improvement has been based on a philosophy of control. That is, for each issue that must be managed to achieve safe performance, a pre-determined barrier must be established. In addition to the barriers that were designed into the plant, a large range of programs, processes and procedures have been developed to direct the activities of anyone associated with the plant. The premise is that the following of pre-determined procedures in a diligent way will support ongoing plant safety. But what if an issue arises for which there is no procedure? For serious situations emergency procedures exist to guide operations personnel to place the plant in a safe state. However, the majority of emerging issues are much more mundane and form part of the daily life in the plant. Where an issue is of concern, and it is developing slowly, the nuclear power industry has been encouraging the use of an ‘Operational Decision Making’ (ODM) process. This process is used to respond rigorously to the issue, generate an appropriate procedure, and help assure ongoing safe operation of the plant. The purpose of this research was to look in detail at the ODM process as practiced at a large Canadian nuclear power utility. Semi-structured interviews of operations and engineering managers were used to build a consolidated picture of their lived experience as they use the ODM process to address unique situations. Rather than focus on the technical aspects of situations where ODM process is used, the interviews used the ‘technical’ story as a framework to discus the way the key players think through, and interact with each other, as they work through issues in a team environment. The resulting data provided a rich description of the ODM process as enacted by the participants. Research of the ODM process is of interest because it illustrates where a traditional problem solving and decision making process is enhanced by social interaction of the participants. The process as lived reaches beyond the traditional control philosophy of nuclear power to provide enhanced input to the decision process. However, the prevalent philosophy of control also appears to inhibit the full value that could be realised from the ODM process, particularly where the current focus is to fill gaps in the regimen of control rather than using the process to obtain a more complete understanding of the system as a whole. Instead of seeing an emerging issue as a challenge to the paradigm of control, the ODM process uses current information about the state of the system, along with a multi-disciplinary approach, to provide thoroughly prepared guidance to the system operators. This approach is already being used to respond to the on-going variations that are now acknowledged as part of managing a complex system. It appears that the social properties of the ODM process add features that help to cope with complexity in the socio-technical systems that now comprise nuclear power utilities.
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