Prof. Karlene Roberts Addresses U.N. Conference on Catastrophes and Nuclear Safety

As catastrophe experts work to improve safety processes following the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in 2011, Professor Emeritus Karlene Roberts explained "Why Catastrophic Accidents Are Not Unique" at a recent U.N. conference.

Roberts spoke at the International Experts Meeting on Human and Organizational Factors in Nuclear Safety in Light of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant Accident, organized by the United Nation’s International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna in May.

Speaking before more than 150 participants from 48 nations, Roberts explained how the number of natural and man-made disasters is on the rise because the world’s population is growing and people are building more and more complex organizations that can contribute to disasters. In addition, she says advances in communication technologies permit more reporting about disasters and enables news about disasters to spread more quickly.

Roberts is an expert on the design and management of organizations and systems of organizations in which errors can have catastrophic consequences. During her talk, she highlighted six of the many reasons for organization disaster: design or other technological failures; training failures; decision-making failures; communication failures; failure of imagination; and failure to deal with organizational interdependencies.

“The U.N.’s goal was to advocate change in operational and regulatory processes in the nuclear power industry and to encourage the Japanese to advance the safety cultures of their plants," Roberts says of the conference. "The fact that the Japanese have changed their nuclear power regulation since the Fukushima accident is one piece of evidence that the U.N. was successful in its goals.”

She says one key improvement since the Fukushima disaster has been the Japanese’s efforts to change the previous practice of career crossovers between regulators and those working in industry. “Japan was notorious for having workers move from the regulation side to the industry and back and forth such that regulators were truly in bed with the businesses they were tasked to regulate,” says Roberts.