Remarks by President Rumina Velshi at the World Nuclear University Strategic Leadership Academy: Managing Your Nuclear Power Plant for the Long Term
July 26, 2021
Virtually from Toronto, Ontario
– Check against delivery –
It is a pleasure to be here today – to speak with our leaders of tomorrow.
I admire your passion, your enthusiasm and your ambition.
But more than that, I admire both your willingness and your eagerness to learn – to become more knowledgeable and capable.
I can tell you from first-hand experience: A commitment to learning is part of the foundation of effective leadership.
I’ve been in and around the nuclear sector for 40 years now. I’m still learning. And, I hope, still becoming a better leader.
I look forward to hearing from the other speakers this morning. I’m especially looking forward to seeing you in action during our breakout sessions.
I’m going to begin today by violating one of the key rules of leadership: I’m going to talk about myself.
But only for a few minutes. And only to give you a sense of my background and my experience – because, of course, these factors influence my perspective.
I came to Canada as a teenager – a refugee from Uganda.
It was, of course, a difficult time and a difficult transition.
I responded by throwing myself into my studies. After high school, I pursued a degree in civil engineering, later following it with a Master’s in Chemical and Nuclear Engineering – and an MBA.
Not a common path for a woman at the time. In fact, I became one of Canada’s very first female nuclear energy workers.
I worked at the Pickering nuclear power station – the first of my gender to perform radioactive work, and the first pregnant atomic radiation worker to get authorization to enter the radiation area.
Even all these years later I can remember in vivid detail the nature of the nuclear workplace: the Playboy centrefolds taped to the wall in plain view; the safety equipment that fit only the men; no change rooms for women; and, of course, the very dismissive attitude toward the idea that a woman could somehow be useful in what had always been a man’s world.
Women were very much in the minority back then – and we were reminded of that fact every day.
Over the past 4 decades, there has been some progress toward gender awareness and equity. Many of the obstacles that existed in my early days have been eliminated. We should take some pride and satisfaction in that.
But good is not good enough.
It will be up to leaders like you to finish the job – to pursue and achieve true equity.
And, as I’ll explain in a moment, equity is something that you should – you must – reflect on as a leader, if your goal is to create the best possible team.
Enough about me. Let me tell you a bit about the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (the CNSC) and its important role as an independent, science-based regulator.
Our focus is safety. Plain and simple.
Our top priority is ensuring the safety of Canadians and the protection of the environment.
And you see evidence of this commitment in everything we do – from our licensing decisions to our open public meetings, to the vigilance and professionalism shown every day by our dedicated staff.
Leadership is about creating a vision – and then putting in place the measures and systems needed to achieve it.
To ensure safety, the CNSC needs to be a world-class regulator.
To get there, we established 4 strategic priorities:
The first – taking a modern approach to nuclear regulation, following practices that are science-based and risk-informed.
The second – being a trusted regulator and recognized as independent, open, transparent and credible.
Third – maintaining and building our global influence to enhance international nuclear safety, security and non-proliferation.
And the fourth – being an agile organization – flexible and adaptable – with an empowered, equipped and diverse workforce. Because organizations need to be able to change with the times.
These priorities form the bedrock of who we are. Everything we do is built on them.
With that in mind, I want to say a few more words about safety – because it is so important, of course, but also because it’s a way to talk about the demands of leadership in the nuclear world.
At the CNSC, our goal is to create a culture of safety across the sector. That means influencing the attitudes and actions of nuclear workers across the country.
And that can only be achieved if the message comes straight from the top.
Every single person needs to know – and needs to be reminded – that safety is job No. 1.
Vocal leadership is essential to creating a culture of vigilance and diligence.
And that culture is, in turn, essential to influencing the performance of workers.
As leaders, our greatest responsibility is to promote a working environment where a culture of safety and risk awareness can flourish. And not only flourish – but persist.
From time to time, we conduct self-assessments of our own safety culture to ensure we’re still on track.
And we look to international benchmarks to make sure we’re constantly improving and incorporating the best practices of others.
Beyond that, we not only welcome but encourage our employees to come to us if they have any concerns at all related to safety.
My executive team and I have an open-door policy. We remind staff of this regularly.
I have also set up a private email address where staff can reach me if they have a serious concern or a strong difference of opinion and want to raise it with me directly.
This is very important to me. I want people to understand that I’m open to their views and their ideas. Put yourself out there.
Sometimes the feedback is positive; other times it can be a bit of a gut punch. But I really do appreciate their candour.
Leaders must foster a culture that rewards those who raise important issues – that is what is going to positively impact our workplaces.
When it comes to safety culture, complacency is the biggest potential enemy, so having everybody on board at all times is a must.
This brings me to diversity and inclusion – which is also tied to a strong safety culture.
Why? Because diversity and inclusion are essential to fostering innovation, solving complex issues and improving our outcomes as a regulator.
The best way to adapt to a changing world – and to reflect that world – is to infuse our industry with new energy and new perspectives. This means hiring the best and the brightest people, from all corners.
That’s how you both attract and retain top talent – by building an organization where everyone is welcome, everyone is valued, and everyone can achieve their potential.
As leaders, we of course play an important role in the success of diversity and inclusion efforts. The direction needs to come from the top. And there needs to be real oversight to create real change.
That means that we as leaders must be accountable – and I encourage you to heed those words.
I can tell you that at the CNSC we have worked with staff to establish a range of employee networks – including networks for Black and Indigenous employees, supported by CNSC staff allies, to help deliver change and progress.
We were also the first federal government entity to sign the BlackNorth Initiative pledge to acknowledge anti-Black systemic racism and its impact, and the need to create opportunities for Black Canadians.
With greater diversity and inclusion, the CNSC will be better equipped to achieve regulatory excellence and deliver on its mandate.
And, of course, I can’t talk about inclusion without talking about the pursuit of gender equity.
A recent survey found that women are still very much a minority across Canada’s nuclear labour force.
And the numbers are even more concerning when you look at the STEM workforce as a whole.
Fewer than 20% of these jobs in Canada are held by women.
Unfortunately, that seems unlikely to change in the near future.
If you look at those graduating with engineering degrees here in Canada, only 22% are female.
That’s exactly the same percentage as back in 2000, when many of us thought we were beginning to generate real momentum towards equality.
So, on one hand, I am frustrated.
I have been in this industry for a long time – and I thought we’d be much further along by now.
But I am also motivated and energized to keep working to make a positive difference. And I encourage others to do the same because of the economic and social benefits of gender equality, but also because of the moral imperative to move towards a more equitable, diverse and representative workforce.
I can tell you that we have begun making practical changes to the way we do things at the CNSC.
We are focused on increasing the number of women in our talent pipeline.
We have launched the Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics initiative, or Women in STEM, to raise awareness of and support for women in STEM careers at the CNSC and elsewhere.
We are finding and engaging supportive mentors.
We are reconfiguring certain roles so that working mothers can raise their children while maintaining important jobs with complex responsibilities.
At the national level, I am very proud to be leading Driving Advancement for Women in Nuclear (or DAWN), an initiative that advocates for gender equality in the nuclear sector.
On the international stage, I contribute to the Nuclear Energy Agency Task Group on Improving the Gender Balance in the Nuclear Sector and I am also co-chair of the International Gender Champions Impact Group.
Both groups look to improve and promote equity in the nuclear sector – both in industry and in the regulatory environment.
And I want to be clear: This is about something more than equality for equality’s sake.
It’s about achieving our potential.
Again, If we are to take full advantage of the benefits of innovation, we need to attract the best and brightest to our industry.
The best men and the best women, impressive people with good ideas.
When we exclude – or fail to open ourselves up to – part of the population, we fall short of our potential.
As a world, we need to persuade more young women to pursue education and careers in the STEM disciplines. Otherwise, we are leaving so much potential untapped.
Let me shift now to another key aspect of leadership – preparedness.
Given the work we do, being prepared must be a cornerstone of our efforts.
So much of our focus is on making sure that a crisis never happens.
But it’s also our responsibility – and one day it will be your responsibility – to demonstrate effective leadership if ever a crisis or the unexpected does occur.
We must plan as best we can. We must prepare. We must test ourselves, over and over.
Strong leadership during normal operations will help rally your staff should unforeseen events ever arise.
A good leader needs to be able to communicate well – which is at the core of a successful emergency response.
It’s the best way to ensure calm is maintained and responsibilities are fulfilled.
A review in 2019 by our international peers found that Canada has a robust and mature preparedness system in place.
However, some of you may recall what happened in Canada in January 2020 – when an emergency alert was erroneously sent out for the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station.
Naturally, this caused concern and confusion for millions of people. That concern and confusion was allowed to spread and grow when authorities failed to issue an immediate correction. A degree of public trust was lost as a result.
I can tell you the CNSC responded quickly that morning, verifying that the alert was in error and then proceeding to communicate this message via our official channels to the public.
We even activated the Emergency Operations Centre, given the need for coordinated support. But the surge in communications overwhelmed our external website, something we were not prepared for.
Lessons learned from an event like this are invaluable – preparedness must be evergreen and we must continuously take actions to improve our readiness.
Hopefully, there will never be a repeat in the future, but if there is, all involved will now be much better prepared to issue an immediate correction.
Another unexpected event was of course the COVID pandemic.
It challenged all of us – not just from a health perspective, but also from a workplace perspective.
It was unanticipated, but we at the CNSC had a robust business continuity plan in place, which helped us transition almost seamlessly to our new reality – maintaining strong and continuous regulatory oversight throughout, albeit remotely.
It has given us the opportunity to look critically at how and why we were doing things the way we were, and to make important changes and improvements going forward.
For example, remote inspections were something completely new for us, and their success has shown us that they are appropriate and sustainable not only during the pandemic but even post-pandemic.
We have demonstrated agility in the face of unprecedented times – confirming that our strategic priorities faithfully guide us in the right direction.
For me, the reminder here is that leaders always need to be prepared for the unknown and unexpected.
That means taking the time to imagine improbable situations.
But it also means putting in place your team, building their skills and abilities, and creating a culture of trust so that when a crisis does arrive, you can act with speed, confidence and authority.
Demonstrate leadership in all situations – keep your focus laser-sharp in addition to demonstrating agility.
And keep learning! – from your organization, your sector and even beyond. Important lessons can be found in even unexpected areas. You can even find them in seemingly successful outcomes.
For example, here’s a question I’ve asked of myself and a number of my colleagues around the world: Yes, the nuclear sector’s response to COVID has been admirable and effective. But how would we have done if the crisis had been 10 or 100 times worse?
Would nuclear plants have been able to continue operating safely and would our oversight have been as strong?
These are the kinds of questions you need to ask – because they lead to important discussions and better preparation. And they help you to build trust both within your organization and with the public at large.
And building trust is crucial.
No matter how transparent you are, no matter how many bridges you work to build, you can always do more.
As a leader, you can’t afford to be overwhelmed by challenges, regardless of their nature, and you must stick to your values and commitments.
And I think trust building is one of the most important priorities that regulators and industry organizations can adopt today.
In a world awash in information and disinformation, cutting through the noise to understand varied interests and concerns and working collaboratively to try and address them need to be a priority.
Where possible, that collaboration should include an international component.
Sharing information and ideas with leaders in other countries is vitally important to enhancing safety around the world, in all regulated sectors, not just nuclear.
The CNSC has for many years shown leadership on the international stage and I am proud to carry on and enhance that role.
I am honoured to have been appointed Chair of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Commission on Safety Standards last year.
At the CSS, we’ve been examining how countries have responded to COVID-19. We’ve been assessing potential implications for global safety standards – and how we might do even better in the future.
The broader point is that we can all learn from one another – and apply what we’ve learned to our own roles and responsibilities here at home.
So, in conclusion, I invite you all to fully take advantage of the opportunity before you – learn and share with your fellow WNU students, in addition to your mentors.
This is in many ways an amazing time to be a leader.
For all our challenges, we live in a time of generational change and societal progress.
You will have the opportunity to make the most of that change – and to drive even greater progress.
You will have the opportunity to rebuild trust in our institutions – and meet heightened expectations for openness and inclusion.
Along the way, I hope you take the time to support one another.
Thank you and I look forward to your questions.
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