By Edward Halpin and Michael J. Reidy
More than four decades ago, nuclear energy was a burgeoning energy source with seemingly unlimited potential. As those efforts stalled, primarily because of overwhelming regulatory requirements and high costs, plant leaders turned to a deeper understanding of human behavior and an awareness of how leadership and culture are vital in performing with excellence.
As a result, a teamwork-based approach throughout the nuclear industry became the foundation for continuous improvement. Specifically, Facilitative Leadership was instrumental in changing nuclear power plant cultures and improving overall safety and performance.
Today, these principles are more relevant than ever, providing a collaborative process that builds trust and fosters teamwork. In a high-performing, safe, and efficient nuclear sector, leaders can establish a resilient culture that leads to excellence by deploying Facilitative Leadership to cultivate processes, relationships, and results that last.
Safety Culture in a Post-COVID-19 Nuclear Sector
The recent pandemic has taken a significant toll on workers in many industries, exacerbating feelings of exhaustion, burnout, and fatigue while creating separation between once-unified teams. Meanwhile, physical distancing guidelines, newly decentralized work arrangements, and shifting consumer demands have created new challenges for industry leaders.
Meanwhile, the nuclear industry in the United States seems to have flourished during this pandemic, maintaining high safety standards while furthering research, development, and innovation initiatives.
Utilizing a teamwork-based approach and a safety culture that encourages dialogue, leaders, regulators, and everyday workers innovated and collaborated in critical ways, reorienting the sector and creating a new normal with incredibly positive results.
Often, these efforts are built upon existing protocols to meet the moment. For example, the nuclear industry prides itself on being a learning sector that openly shares lessons learned and best practices throughout the world. Nuclear has always recognized that pandemics could impact safe operations.
Specifically, following the H1N1 pandemic of 2009, nuclear plants developed protocols for pandemic outbreaks, which have continued to be successful during the COVID-19 pandemic.
What’s more, in 2020, the Nuclear Industry conducted multiple refueling outages throughout the world using thousands of contract workers, relying on a teamwork-based approach to safely accomplish maintenance and refueling tasks despite the pandemic.
The results are clear. Last year, nuclear energy became the second-largest source of electricity in the United States, surpassing coal-generated electricity for the first time in US history. Meanwhile, the country’s Nuclear Industry operated safely and reliably, providing a capacity factor or online availability of over 90% for the 22nd year in a row.
In many ways, these developments are attributable to the safety culture and collaborative ethos that’s pervasive throughout the sector.
The Importance of Facilitative Leadership in Today’s Nuclear Sector
Of course, the nuclear industry is always progressing, requiring leaders at every level to continue to mature and adapt existing safety culture protocols to prepare their teams for the weeks, months, and years ahead.
According to Maria Korsnick, the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Nuclear Energy Institute, “There is no bigger opportunity in front of us than rebuilding the world’s energy system around carbon free sources. From good paying jobs and carbon free electricity to US global leadership, nuclear energy is the source that can make it work.”
The Nuclear Industry utilizes a teamwork-based approach of transparent interactions that put safety first. Facilitative leadership has helped to build that culture into a success story that will improve our environment and the quality of life for many communities throughout the world.
Here’s how nuclear energy can apply those practices today.
#1 Reinvest in Collaborative Best Practices
Collaboration norms and best practices were challenged by the pandemic, creating new opportunities for industry leaders. The pandemic has highlighted the incredible need to focus on building and maintaining a collaborative teamwork-based culture, something the industry is well-positioned to pursue.
To illustrate, in 2020, the Department of Energy awarded several companies for building advanced reactors, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the first ever small modular reactor design. Despite the pandemic, construction at the Georgia nuclear power station called Vogtle advanced to the point of preparing new nuclear units to come online in 2021 and 2022. Notably, this construction effort involved over 7,000 workers working as a team safely to accomplish their mission.
As we return to normalized operations, hybrid teams and new standards will continue to shape this priority. Meanwhile, other factors, including cost effectiveness, the introduction of new nuclear technology, and a nuclear industry that now appears to be growing as an integral part of addressing climate change, will be challenged to step up and meet the demands of the future.
#2 Learn from the Recent Past to Prepare for the Future
Organizations need to take time to stop and process what happened in the past year. Leaders must conduct listening sessions that allow employees to express their feelings on what they experienced throughout the pandemic.
Leaders need to ensure a strong “lessons learned” program is established where employees are encouraged to provide their feedback on any and all activities. At the same time, leaders should take the time to understand the feedback and move to action on gaps to excellence to be ready for the next strategic moment.
Based on feedback provided, leaders should modify as necessary their existing leadership training programs to ensure the right leadership behaviors are inculcated into the culture going forward.
#3 Cultivate Safety Culture for Sustainable Success
Strong, emotionally safe cultures have enabled the nuclear sector to learn from mistakes while maintaining a rigorous safety record in a high-risk environment. As companies invested heavily to promote physical safety, a post-pandemic landscape requires continued similar investments in emotional health, empowering all workers to be safety advocates, collaborators, and participants in the organization’s process. Notably, this requires incorporating strong process skills into the conduct of meetings, making them effective while emphasizing a positive, teamwork-based culture that performs at a high level.
Moreover, conducting regular safety culture assessments can heighten awareness of key attributes of a facilitative leader, including:
- being receptive and flexible behaviorally
- thinking strategically,
- embracing a collaborative attitude
- sharing responsibility for success.
The nuclear industry should recognize the importance of these efforts, investing in and developing their culture of safety practices to ensure continuous improvement.
A safe, effective nuclear sector is critical for its long-term success as well as the success of a carbon free energy industry. As the nuclear sector works alongside other energy sources in an increasingly competitive energy sector, facilitative leaders can help ensure positive outcomes, creating teams that are consciously collaborative, routinely reflective, and driven by leadership attributes that bring out the best in their employees resulting in sustainable success of which we can all be proud.
About the authors:
Ed Halpin, CEO and Founder, Halpin Leadership Industries (HLI) Inc. Prior to becoming CEO of HLI Halpin served as Senior Vice President, Generation and Chief Nuclear Officer (CNO) for Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E-Retired December 2017). In this role, Ed was responsible for overall strategic direction and leading upwards of 3,000 employees who were focused on the safe, reliable and affordable operation of all sources of PG&E owned generation. He also served as the President and Chief Executive Officer of Fuelco, a privately held limited liability company owned by Ameren Missouri and PG&E responsible for nuclear fuel supply, fabrication and delivery, and the CEO of Eureka Energy which manages the 13,000 acres of land surrounding Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.
Michael Reidy serves as the Senior Consultant for Interaction Associates. Reidy joined Interaction Associates in 1997 and has focused on designing and delivering customized learning processes ever since. Prior to joining IA, he led the Dublin (Ireland) Institute of Adult Education for 9 years. His responsibilities included overall management of the Institute’s 120 trainers, design and development of new adult education programs, and the continued education and training of his management team.
The future of nuclear energy is a key topic within the POWERGEN content series happening live Jan. 26-28 in Dallas. The POWERGEN Call for Speakers is still open and seeking submissions for tracks such as Decarbonization, Digitalization, Energy Storage Breakthroughs, the Future of Electricity, Hydrogen: What’s New, Optimizing Plant Performance, the New Energy Mix (on-site power) and Trends in Conventional Power. Click here to see more and submit a session idea.