Learning from a zero-incident industry: 6 pillars of naval nuclear propulsion

Posted on 10 September 2013

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By Dave Burnham, Check-6

Lessons learned by the US Navy in the early 1950s are relevant to the oil and gas industry as leaders seek to eliminate the accidental release of hydrocarbons and catastrophic events. The US Navy accepted nuclear propulsion as the answer to the technological vulnerabilities faced by its fleet after World War II, and many changes were enacted to ensure zero-incident operations. The Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program has been so successful that ships have sailed enough “reactor miles” to go to the sun and back since the launch of the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear submarine, in 1954. This milestone was achieved without any radiological accidents.

This article will examine the culture of the sailors and officers that have operated these mobile nuclear power plants and explore the keys to their success.

Following World War II, the US Navy identified key vulnerabilities of the US fleet. The enormous advantage of stealth maneuver enjoyed by the submarine was neutralized by the need to surface, or near surface, for battery charging and higher-speed steaming. The aircraft carrier’s ability to transport an airborne strike force to enemy shores and provide a post-mission sanctuary was marginalized by the need to continuously take on and store vast amounts of self-sustaining fuel oil.

The solution to these deficiencies would be found in technology similar to that used to end the war in the Pacific: nuclear energy. This source of power would allow submarines to remain submerged for months and travel at high speeds. Further, aircraft carriers would require only one refueling during their projected service life of 50 years.

Nuclear power was destined to revolutionize modern naval warfare, but one key obstacle had to be overcome to fully implement this innovation – the culture of the crews manning the vessels had to evolve. To effectively manage this complex technology, quickly identify deviations while they were manageable and enact precise procedures 100% of the time, the nuclear navy required revolutionary cultural transformation to complement their technological innovation.

Supplanting the mantra of “It will never happen to us” with “It can happen here” was step one. Understanding that something bad could happen to an unprepared crew, the navy took deliberate action to establish a culture centered on cross-checks, mutual support and supervision.

Cross-checking is to compare primary and secondary information about surroundings to constantly update and improve situational awareness. Constantly comparing expected changes with actual changes allows people to catch deviations quickly and manage them effectively. Mutual support is the crew’s ability to actively back each other up while working to a well-defined and clearly communicated standard. Supervision is the leadership element of effective oversight that provides a top layer of protection, leveraging a depth-of-systems understanding and operational experience. This culture would be developed on what is now called the “Six Pillars of Naval Nuclear Propulsion.”

Since the launch of the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear submarine, in 1954, the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program has maintained a track record of no radiological accidents.

Since the launch of the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear submarine, in 1954, the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program has maintained a track record of no radiological accidents.

1. Integrity

This goes deeper than the common definition of doing what is correct even when nobody is looking. It is the core recognition that no matter what job you have on the vessel, you are a critical part of the team that protects the reactors and keeps the ship safe. You do the best job possible everyday because the lives of your shipmates and the security of a nation depend on it.

2. Formality

The understanding that things need to be communicated in a very specific way every time so that no miscommunication can occur to jeopardize the safety of the plant. Mandatory verbatim read-back of instructions was put in place to ensure what was heard was actually said. This confirmation of understanding was critical prior to any manipulation of plant controls.

3. Procedural compliance

A vetted procedure had to be followed precisely, in sequential order and verified to ensure the equipment was always operated according to design.  When a procedure was suspect, it was put up for review. If found deficient, it was put through a defined process to upgrade or improve it for future use. It was never acceptable to deviate from a written procedure without formal approval from the chain of command.

4. Level of knowledge

Continuous improvement on a personal level was expected and enforced. Standards of knowledge were set and regular measurements taken. When remediation was required, there was a process to downgrade a qualification until the deficiency was corrected. The day a sailor stopped improving his or her level of knowledge was the day they started to decay. Knowledge decay equals increased risk.

5. Questioning attitude

Every member of the crew is required to question every plant operation and constantly ask: What is the worst thing that could happen? What was the most likely deviation that could occur? What would the early indications of these deviations look like? What action will I take?  A crew with a questioning attitude is a force prepared to face challenges.

6. Forceful backup

Always being prepared to reinforce a shipmate during operations. Never giving orders in hushed tones enabled crew members in the immediate proximity to hear communications and intervene if the message or intent was uncertain.  Forceful backup brings in the previous five pillars as a direct layer of protection to the inevitable misunderstanding. By creating a standardized plan and ensuring understanding, deviations could be spotted easily, and an empowered crew would be more likely to stop work in the early stage of getting off track.

The culture embodied by the nuclear navy is neither easy nor inexpensive to create. However, if the elimination of accidental release of hydrocarbons and loss of life is required, cultural innovation is a proven method to achieve enduring, incident-free operations. This model can be effectively adopted by other high-reliability organizations to address their technologically complex, time-constrained and high-hazard environment to achieve incident-free operations and culture of performance excellence.

Commander David Burnham of the US Navy (retired) is a distinguished graduate of the Navy Nuclear Power Training Program and current vice president of international operations for Check-6.

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