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IAEA Director General's Statement at the International Conference on Human and Organizational Aspects of Assuring Nuclear Safety — Exploring 30 Years of Safety Culture

Vienna, Austria

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano addressing delegates at the international nuclear safety culture conference at the IAEA headquarters. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

Good afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen.

I am pleased to welcome you to this IAEA International Conference on Human and Organizational Aspects of Assuring Nuclear Safety — Exploring 30 Years of Safety Culture.

The term “safety culture” became established in the nuclear world after the Chernobyl accident in 1986.

A 1991 report by the International Nuclear Safety Advisory Group, entitled Safety Culture, stressed the importance of good practices for nuclear safety.

The report added that it was also essential for “all duties important to safety to be carried out correctly, with alertness, due thought and full knowledge, sound judgement and a proper sense of accountability.”

In other words, safety culture is about the human factor. It addresses the human tendency towards complacency and taking things for granted. This approach is essential in undertaking nuclear activities.

Nuclear safety is primarily the responsibility of licensees in individual States. But accidents can transcend borders, so effective international cooperation on nuclear safety is vital. The IAEA plays the leading role in bringing States together to shape a safer nuclear future throughout the world.

Our publications, including the Fundamental Safety Principles and IAEA safety standards, have established a strong global framework for safety.

In the early years after Chernobyl, the focus was, understandably, on safety at nuclear power plants.

But now the concept of safety culture is being used to enhance safety at all types of nuclear facilities, and for activities in which radiation and radioactive sources are used. These include industrial and research applications, medical diagnosis and treatment, and the transport of radioactive material.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Last year, my report on the Fukushima Daiichi accident was published.

The report found that a major factor that contributed to the accident was a widespread assumption in Japan that its nuclear power plants were so safe that an accident of this magnitude was simply unthinkable. Japan was not sufficiently prepared in March 2011 for a severe nuclear accident.

In the five years since then, Japan — and all countries with nuclear power programmes — have taken vigorous steps to reassess and, where necessary, improve safety in all its aspects.

These ranged from additional measures to protect nuclear power plants against extreme natural events such as major earthquakes and tsunamis, to organizational changes and reform of regulatory systems. Increased efforts have been made to better understand the human aspects of assuring nuclear safety.

The report on the Fukushima Daiichi accident emphasised the importance of a systemic approach to safety culture. It concluded that a strong safety culture is vital not just for the licensee, but also for the regulatory body, relevant government bodies, technical support organizations and other stakeholders.

I have just returned from the United Arab Emirates, where I had a chance to visit the Barakah site, where four nuclear power reactors are under construction. All staff and visitors to the site must attend a presentation on nuclear safety before entering. I was impressed by this commitment to instilling a safety culture long before the start of operations.

For an organization to achieve a high level of nuclear safety, it must establish a culture in which people are encouraged to continuously look for improvement, and feel able to challenge assumptions and question received wisdom. In short, a culture that puts safety first.

Technology is a human endeavour. No technology is ever 100 per cent safe. Nuclear is no exception. But I believe that important lessons for safety have been identified from Fukushima Daiichi, both in Japan and internationally.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

This conference will provide an opportunity for this expert audience to reflect upon the lessons that have been learned for safety culture over the past 30 years, and to consider what lessons may still need to be learned.

I am sure we will agree that continuous questioning, and openness to learning from experience, are key.

I wish you every success for the coming days and look forward to learning about the outcome of this important event.

Thank you.

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