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Women in STEM: Enhancing the Nuclear Safety Culture

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Maria Josefa Moracho Ramirez, Senior Safety Officer, takes the floor at the Technical Meeting on EPREV (Emergency Preparedness and Response Peer Review Service) in October 2019. (Photo: IAEA)

“The concept of a ‘safety culture’ is something that I identified for myself as very important, early on in my career,” says Maria Moracho Ramirez, Senior Safety Officer at the IAEA. “It relates to a culture of behaviour, and if you’ve been a trainer, you know that training for influencing behaviours is very complicated.”

In organizations dealing with nuclear and radioactive material, a strong safety and security culture helps to prevent accidents, as well as intentional acts that could lead to theft of nuclear material and/or harm the facility. It refers to the way in which safety and security is perceived, valued, prioritised and integrated into organizations. It involves leadership and other human factors. “Developing effective training to influence culture and change behaviours is challenging,” Moracho Ramirez says, “because it is quite different from explaining, for example, the design of a nuclear power plant, which follows a more straight-forward flow and can also be demonstrated physically.”

Not one to back away from a challenge, at the IAEA Moracho Ramirez has pioneered the concept of the IAEA’s first-ever IAEA International School on Nuclear and Radiological Leadership for Safety. The school focuses on fostering a culture of safety and on demonstrating the links between leadership and safety. Since its launch in 2017 it has attracted more than 200 early to mid-career nuclear professionals.

“Before the school, safety publications tended to relate more to ensuring effective management systems, rather than the role of leadership in effective nuclear safety. With the School we introduced this focus, and combined it with interactive, experiential learning, based on real life nuclear related scenarios,” she says.

From physics to nuclear

Moracho Ramirez has spent nearly 30 years working in the nuclear field, but it wasn’t nuclear technology itself that first captured her interest in science and technology. Her real passion, since childhood, was for applied physics. “Physics is very connected to nature, and I liked to observe, gather information and use it to build patterns,” she says. “While mathematics was, for me, a bit too disconnected from nature, I had the feeling that physics would help me understand the ‘why’ of natural phenomena around me.”

She was first introduced to nuclear technology while studying applied physics at the Autonomous University of Madrid (UAM). “I was particularly fascinated by nuclear energy because of our ability to produce such a huge amount of energy,” she says. Moracho Ramirez went on to complete a master’s degree in nuclear engineering and in 1993 joined Spain’s Nuclear Safety Council (CSN) as an assessor and inspector in Probabilistic Safety Assessments (PSAs) of nuclear power plants.

Her interest in the way in which machine and human interaction impact nuclear safety began in 1995, when she moved to Norway as a guest scientist at the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency to conduct research on human and behavioural factors influencing complex human-machine interactions. “There was a nuclear power plant simulator, and I worked with a group of scientists, professors, psychologists and senior regulators carrying out scenario-based experiments, for example, nuclear power plant accidents, to determine the interaction among the people involved and see the kind of linkages between human and machine actions, and how they could be more effective,” she says.

In 1999, Moracho Ramirez joined the European Commission as the scientific secretary of the former European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group and contributed to the nuclear safety evaluations within the framework of the EU’s enlargement negotiations with several countries that had nuclear power plants. In 2003, she returned to the CSN in Spain, to focus on gathering operational experience feedback in nuclear installations and collaborate with the Reactor Harmonisation Working Group of the Western Nuclear Regulatory Authorities (WENRA).

Joining the IAEA

Moracho Ramirez joined the IAEA in 2006 as a Nuclear Safety Officer and spent a number of years carrying out nuclear installation safety training for regulators. “My job was very much related to building regulatory knowledge and competence in countries looking to embark on nuclear power programmes,” she says. “So my attention was on effective training – not just presenting the IAEA’s safety standards, but identifying the gaps between the book and the application.” Over the past 15 years, she has conducted 55 nuclear safety workshops and assistance missions all over the world, promoting the safety requirements and facilitating knowledge transfer.

Since taking on the role of Senior Safety Officer at the IAEA in 2015 and launching the leadership school in 2017, Moracho Ramirez’ role has broadened to include coordinating work to strengthen the efficiency and effectiveness of IAEA peer review and advisory services.

“Maria’s excellent analytical skills, diligence, strategic and innovative thinking are remarkable qualities that support a number of activities,” said Shahid Mallick, Acting Director of the IAEA Office of Nuclear Safety and Security Coordination. “Her role in the IAEA School on Nuclear and Radiological Leadership for Safety – which she conceived, developed and brought to implementation in just six months – was nothing short of an excellent feat, and the course is recognised and admired by our Member States as a significant support in the area of nuclear safety.”

For her part, what Moracho Ramirez enjoys most about working at the IAEA is the global nature of the work. “I love working in an environment where we can look at aspects related to nuclear safety from a global perspective and to be able to give guidance based on the wealth of knowledge we have gathered from hundreds of experts with different perspectives, from across the globe,” she says.

The IAEA’s commitment to gender equality

The IAEA strives to increase the representation of women both in the nuclear field in general and in the IAEA in particular, having committed to achieving gender parity – 50 per cent men and 50 per cent women – in the Agency’s professional and higher categories by 2025. Read more about the IAEA’s work on gender equality. Click here to see current IAEA vacancies.

Maria Josefa Moracho Ramirez giving a presentation at the IAEA International School of Nuclear and Radiological Leadership for Safety, which took place in Athens, Greece, in November 2021. (Photo: J. Zlatnansky)

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