The Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program: A Brief Case Study in Institutional Constancy

By Crawford, John W.; Krahn, Steven L. | Public Administration Review, March-April 1998 | Go to article overview
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The Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program: A Brief Case Study in Institutional Constancy


Crawford, John W., Krahn, Steven L., Public Administration Review


In an article published in the November/December 1996 issue of Public Administration Review, LaPorte and Keller argued that the management of large organizations that deal with hazardous materials (materials that pose significant risks over long periods) presented "extraordinary challenges for public institutions." They postulated that, in our society, such organizations are "Pressed to operate at nearly fault-free levels" in order to remain viable. LaPorte and Keller went on to describe a concept they called "institutional constancy." They argued that such constancy is a necessary (but not sufficient) attribute of organizations, if they wish to achieve public acceptance in their operations with hazardous materials (see also LaPorte and Metlay, 1996).

LaPorte and Keller describe institutional constancy from a number of perspectives: the perceived need for it, the barriers to achieving it, and an outline of the matters that must be attended to if institutional constancy is to be achieved. In suggesting further paths for research, LaPorte and Keller urge that case studies be developed that examine "the characteristics and experiences of institutions" that have achieved a degree of institutional constancy. They mention a number of organizations that, based on externally available information, appear to meet their criteria for institutional constancy. One of these organizations is the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program.

The authors concur that much can be learned regarding institutional constancy by reviewing the history, organization, and management of such organizations as the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program (or Naval Reactors, as it is more commonly known). This program is responsible for the design, construction, operation, maintenance, and decommissioning of the nuclear power plants that propel approximately 40 percent of the major combatant ships of the U.S. Navy. As such, Naval Reactors has managed the building and operation of approximately 240 nuclear reactors and, importantly in today's environment, safely and responsibly decommissioned more than 50 of these reactors and their associated equipment. Since the organization has safely and effectively dealt with the hazards associated with nuclear power for almost 50 years, it seems appropriate to evaluate some of the reasons for that success.

In the following discussion, Naval Reactors will first be described from an insider's perspective, that is, discussed in term that the program (and its chroniclers) have employed. This description is intended to provide a "feel" for the program The attributes that emerge during this discussion will then be compared to the basic structure of institutional constancy described by LaPorte and Keller.

Inside Naval Reactors

Naval Reactors is a joint program of the Navy and the Department of Energy. The need for a joint effort stems from the fact that the Department of Energy is the only government agency empowered by law to conduct research and development on power reactors (Rockwell, 1992, 44-46, 54-64; Duncan and Hewlett, 1974, 60-67, 88-94). In basic terms, the Navy defines the required features of the nuclear power plants; the Department of Energy develops and tests the plants to ensure that they meet the requirements. The Navy builds, operates, and decommissions the shipboard plants, and then turns the decommissioned reactor plants over to other organizations within the Department of Energy for burial.(1)

Very early in the development of naval nuclear power, H. G. Rickover, then a Navy captain, saw that this statutory division of responsibilities posed grave difficulties. He recognized that the development and utilization of this revolutionary new source of power should be treated as a series of closely related technical functions including research and development, detailed design, procurement of apparatus, maintenance and repair of equipment, and selection and training of personnel.

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