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No room for error: safety lessons from the nuclear industry

Jason Boyle

The exacting safety demands for architecture in the atomic power industry could provide vital pointers to the construction world

Safety culture in the nuclear industry carries over into construction on projects such as this silos maintenance facility at Sellafield.
Safety culture in the nuclear industry carries over into construction on projects such as this silos maintenance facility at Sellafield.

Ever since the atom was first split on 14 April, 1932, by Cockcroft and Walton, safety has been at the forefront of everything the nuclear industry does. I work for Sellafield and our mission is to clean up the nuclear site to a defined end state while keeping it safe and secure. As an architect, I believe there is a lot the nuclear industry can teach us about creating a safety culture.

Architects have a critical role to play in the nuclear industry. In taking responsibility for building layouts, we also face unique challenges such as designing for radiation shielding, controlling spread of contamination and designing with decommissioning in mind. An architect’s skill set makes us best placed to design nuclear facilities where we not only consider all aspects of functional design, but we also take on responsibility for designing for nuclear fire safety, which can be much more onerous than conventional fire safety. 


Credit: Toby Morison

Within the construction industry, a lot has been talked about creating a golden thread. In December 2017, Judith Hackitt called for this approach in her interim report following the Grenfell Tower Fire. ‘There needs to be a golden thread for all complex and high-risk building projects,’ she wrote, ‘so that the original design intent is preserved and recorded and … any changes go through a formal review process involving people who are competent and who understand the key features of the design.’ This has been something that the nuclear industry has been doing for many years. 

Part of being a nuclear professional means actively taking responsibility to create a culture of safety. How this works in practice is that everyone we work with from external consultants, contractors, stakeholders and regulators are all made to understand that safety is part of every decision we take. Let me give you some examples.

At Sellafield, every meeting or workshop we hold begins with a ‘safety share’. This is often delivered by the meeting chair and is an integral part of every meeting we have. The attendees listen and learn from a five-minute safety presentation, and then debate the lessons learned. Examples can come from other industries as well as from nuclear. 

A strong part of our safety design measures is our ‘gated design process’ where we move through several stages or, rather, gates. Gates are defined as studies, concept, preliminary and detail design phases, and in order to pass through each gate you must hold safety reviews which inform the safety case strategy. Approval of the safety case is mandatory before any construction can begin.

To allow safe passage through each gate, we hold single-discipline design reviews carried out by panels including independent people from both within the company and from outside. Following the single-discipline reviews, multi-discipline design reviews are held where we review the design holistically with the review team challenging the design solutions to understand how they have been designed with safety in mind. 

Architects also take part in peer assists reviews where the project leader requests assistance from fellow peers. A big part of this is to understand how learning from other projects on safety has been embedded into the project and is also used to share best practice. 

Hazards-in-construction reviews – or ‘hazcons’ – are part of the measures we use to engage with the contractor. We work in collaboration to design out any significant hazards. One of the main uses of the process is to provide auditable evidence that designers have taken the necessary measures to remove, reduce or control hazards of both construction and future maintenance of the structure as required by law. 

Where risks remain that cannot be designed out, details of these residual risks can be summarised and communicated to the main contractor to ensure that it is aware of its obligations and, therefore, able to control all the significant risks that will exist during the project’s construction phase. 

During the design process, you are required to log any design risks from all disciplines on a central risk register, which is monitored by the safety team and principal designer. This is regularly reviewed by the project, involving all discipline leads. Everyone on the project needs to be aware of the risks that other disciplines are carrying. These risks are then fed into a live document called the safety case, and inform the project of the risks that need to be addressed. These are monitored through holding regular risk reviews.  


Where risk can’t be designed out, it is summarised for the contractor, as on as on the Sellafield silos maintenance facility.
Where risk can’t be designed out, it is summarised for the contractor, as on as on the Sellafield silos maintenance facility.

Architects are also required to write a basis of design document. This records how the function of architecture will meet the client’s requirements. The primary purpose is to record the basis for all design decisions, addressing requirements and logging any assumptions you have made throughout the design process. Each design basis is given a trackable reference code where we begin the golden thread of design decision-making. We review any assumptions on a regular basis and turn them into requirements through discussion with the end user. The golden thread is continued with these requirements becoming system requirements, which then translate into specifications and drawings. 

Lastly, we check and approve all drawings. This is a process that I didn’t see a lot of when I was in practice. We have different levels of checking, depending on the purpose and phase of the drawing. The author of the drawing cannot check their own work, someone more experienced will check the drawings to the required level and add a signature. In addition, the approver of the drawing will be a different person and is often the lead architect, who will take full responsibility by signing the drawings. No drawing will be registered or built from without these three signatures, ensuring a fresh pair of eyes is given to each drawing. 

On smaller projects you may not have the budget or time for carrying out all the above safety suggestions, however even some of these applied appropriately could save lives. 

The creation of an enhanced safety culture within the construction sector can only be a good thing. Can we make things safer?  My project for a silos maintenance facility took 1,286 days to construct and we had no reportable accidents on site. That is quite a record for most construction sites but a common occurrence on nuclear projects.

Jason Boyle is a nuclear architect at Sellafield Ltd



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