Leadership lessons from the nuclear industry

Looking at my nuclear industry career with hindsight. It is actually quite striking to see that many leadership lessons can be drawn from the industry. The more I think about it, the more I actually realise that it even influenced elements of my own leadership style. So, let’s find out what the industry can teach aspiring leaders in any field.

The 5Ps

Or more prosaically, “proper planning prevents poor performance.” I was lucky to be stationed in Hartlepool Power station during what was called a ‘reactor outage’. A reactor outage is when a nuclear reactor is kind of taken apart and then re-assembled. During this outage, graphite samples were taken from the reactor. The turbine that generates electricity was opened-up and investigated. The condenser where normally a dozen tons of water would flow each minute was dry and could be looked into. The normal on-site workforce of a few hundred staff doubled in size to carry out big maintenance tasks.

All of this was possible via careful planning and preparation. In fact, planning for the next outage starts as soon as the current one finishes. Staff from various departments were temporarily attached to the unit in charge of outage planning. Proper planning was an economic imperative. Every extra day when the reactor was offline meant losing out of half a million pound of electricity sales.

Sometimes, it is easy to dismiss planning as “not needed” or as “too rigid”. However, proper planning is an essential albeit unglamorous part of turning an objective into reality. In my current leadership role for a major organisation, failing to plan ahead would be tantamount to setting myself for failure.

Keep it simple and structured

I was very privileged to spend some time in a nuclear operations shift. The guys that drove the nuclear reactor forward, day and night 24/7. One of my colleagues once walked me through SOIs. SOIs or Standard Operating Instructions were a set of files that governed every aspect of operating a nuclear reactor. If the reactor was switched-off, one had to pull out a file and to follow the instructions carefully.

The instructions are striking by their simplicity and ease of understanding. Everything is laid out in clear flowcharts organised with “Yes/No” questions. This makes it possible to quickly identify faults or to follow a particular course of action. Moreover, the documents’ structure facilitates handover from one operator to the next. Of course, a thorough understanding of the reactors’ systems, conditions and science are also required. These instructions are also not to be followed blindly.

Documentation, flowcharts and clear procedures can revolutionise an organisation and enable it to raise its game. Keeping things as simple as possible will also guarantee long-term sustainability and usability.

Communication matters

This is in some respects where the nuclear industry failed historically. Having dreams of energy too cheap to meter is fantastic. But hiding information and not answering straight questions honestly can destroy one’s credibility and reputation. Things have moved on from a few decades ago and nuclear power stations in the UK are now open for visitors. However, the nuclear industry is on the defensive in the battle of ideas for future energy sources.

Why? Because it failed to inspire and generate passion in the promises of its vision. Instead of passionate tales of ingenuity, of milligrams of Uranium powering homes, and of new possibilities. Communication has always been defensive and failure to capture the imaginations of the masses. Its highly technical nature is part of the challenge. But many techniques exist to clearly communicate complexity.

Leaders must be able to persuade and inspire others in the validity of their cause. Technological superiority is a powerful rational argument. But humans aren’t entirely rational creatures and, Napoleon once said:

“A man does not have himself killed for a half-pence a day or for a petty distinction. You must speak to the soul in order to electrify him”

Nuclear reactor
View inside a Pressurized Water Nuclear Reactor – Image from EDF Energy

1 thought on “Leadership lessons from the nuclear industry”

  1. Nuclear power specialists claimed that nuclear energy was renewable. This video is about a journalist investigation into Russian waste processing industry that shows that less 10% of the so-called uranium tails are turned into a reusable fuel and the rest of the deadly stuff in stored in rustic containers under the sky somewhere in Siberia. And, as the below publication of BBC states, it can be used to build bombs.
    Nuclear waste
    Radioactive waste is one of the biggest problems the nuclear industry faces.

    The greatest concern is the small proportion of nuclear waste that is “high-level waste” – waste so radioactive that it generates heat and corrodes all containers, and would cause death within a few days to anyone directly exposed to it.

    In the UK this accounts for less than 0.3% of the total volume of nuclear waste but accounts for about half the total radioactivity.

    No man-made container could survive the tens of thousands of years it will take for high-level waste to decay to safe levels.

    No country has yet implemented a long-term solution to this problem, although Finland and the US have plans to build repositories deep underground in areas identified for their geological stability. This solution is one of those under consideration in the UK.

    Spent nuclear fuel is highly radioactive, but can be reprocessed to extract the remaining usable uranium and plutonium, a process which reduces the need to mine fresh uranium and cuts the volume of waste.

    In countries where reprocessing takes place, high-level radioactive waste is the waste left behind after the uranium and plutonium have been extracted. In the UK, this is treated as shown in the graphic above.

    In these countries, spent fuel, uranium and plutonium are not currently categorised as wastes (because they can be used), although they must be stored like radioactive wastes – and there is the added security concern that plutonium can be used to make nuclear bombs.

    If reprocessing is not part of the cycle, the spent fuel itself is high-level waste. Intermediate level wastes are mixed with concrete and stored in tanks, drums and vaults at the sites where they are created.

    If the UK’s reactors all operate to their current shutdown dates and no more are built, there will be an estimated 36,590 cubic metres – enough to fill 14 Olympic-sized swimming pools – of intermediate and high level waste in the UK.

    Most of the country’s low-level waste is stored in sealed concrete vaults at a purpose-built store in Drigg, Cumbria, although some is considered safe enough to go into hazardous waste landfill sites.

    The Drigg store currently contains 960,000 cubic metres – equivalent to 384 Olympic swimming pools – of waste.


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