Russian researchers, wanting to reduce the number of accidents at nuclear materials facilities in their country, have teamed up with several Sandia human factors and cognition experts to figure out ways to determine on any given day if workers are ready to perform critical operations.
“The Russians came to us seeking help in developing some kind of protocol for assessing human readiness for duty,” says Elaine Hinman-Sweeney (6723), who manages Sandia’s US-Russian collaborations for the Nuclear Weapons Science and Technology Program. “They want to know what factors might cause a person not to do well at his or her job.”
The reason for their concern is that between 1945 and 1999 a total of 22 accidents occurred in nuclear process facilities in the US, Russia, and the United Kingdom, resulting in nine fatalities and amputations in three survivors. One of the most serious was at a nuclear power reactor at Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986. Nuclear process facilities include both nuclear weapons laboratories and nuclear power plants where operations involve fissile materials that require physical and administrative controls to prevent critical or near-critical events from occurring.
Human error looms large
Causes for the serious accidents were due primarily to human error and included failure to follow procedures, failure to notice abnormal conditions, communication errors, and inadequate supervisory monitoring of operations. Also causing the accidents were deficiencies in training, equipment, and processes.
Promoting the joint research were representatives of VNIIEF — a Russian experimental physics laboratory. Russian researchers at St. Petersburg State University have invented a technology that evaluates readiness in people employed in that country’s railroad system, looking at immediate skill levels and physiological indicators of emotion and stress resilience. The skill portion is specific to the ability to operate trains.
The Russian researchers want to adapt the same technology to the nuclear materials arena — hence the reason they turned to Sandia human factors and cognition experts for assistance.
Sandia psychologist Courtney Dornburg (12335) says one of the first activities she and Elaine engaged in was to develop a glossary of common neuroscience, cognition, and human factors terms.
“The Russians use some of the same vocabulary as we do, but in our initial conversations, we found that our words really had different meanings,” Courtney says. “The glossary put us on the same page so that when we talked through an interpreter we understood each other.”
Courtney and Elaine also reviewed a survey of all the accidents that occurred in the Russian nuclear weapons complex to better understand their seriousness and which could be attributed to human error and stress.
In October they spent a week in St. Petersburg, meeting with Russian professors and researchers, giving all the team members the opportunity to talk face to face. This was the third meeting between the Russians and Americans in Russia. Two other meetings were held earlier at Sandia.
As part of the October visit, the Sandians — Courtney, Elaine, Chris Forsythe (6341), and Conrad James (1744) — attended a conference on cognitive psychology and neuroscience technology. The conference emphasized a sharing of research and ideas concerning technology application of cognitive and neuroscience research. Other Americans attending the conference were representatives of the Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, and the University of Memphis.
The goal of the conference, Chris says, was to open doors for US and Russian collaborations in the area of cognition and neurotechnologies.
Courtney says the conference and other meetings made both the Americans and Russians even more aware of their different approaches.
Follow-on activity would be for the Russians to continue to develop the readiness for work detection tool and convert it to critical facilities that contain nuclear materials. Sandia would then validate their efforts.
Chris notes that Sandia’s cognition work with the Russian laboratory and university will have benefits in this country.
“Concern for personnel readiness for duty exists throughout US critical nuclear weapons operations, just as it does in Russia,” he says. “The project provides an avenue for the US nuclear facilities, and other government agencies, to learn about and potentially benefit from the research and development of the Russian scientists.”