Knowledge Management From Design, Operation Throughout the Decommissioning Phases

By Michele Laraia, independent consultant, formerly IAEA Decommissioning Unit Leader

Michele Laraia’s series of articles are intended to start a conversation and stimulate debate. We invite you to comment or ask questions below (or send us an email) regarding this article either using your name or anonymously, and we will print some of the comments/questions in an upcoming Weekly Digital Report, as well as in the article itself. Laraia will also respond to any comments/questions from readers. Then, stay tuned next month for a new article and new debate.

Given the long timescales of active decommissioning projects (many decades), the preservation of information and its transfer to future generations is a fundamental element of this industry. But adding on the long time periods given to the siting, planning, construction and operation of a nuclear facility before shutdown (when most records relevant to future decommissioning are generated) the overall time span encompassing knowledge management for decommissioning purposes easily exceeds 100 years and can reach 300 years. This time is generally considered sufficient to complete a decommissioning project up to site release and reach conditions for the release of very-low-level-waste and low-level-waste disposal sites where the decommissioning wastes have been buried. However, sites associated with long-lived radionuclides (e.g. uranium mill tailings, or geological disposal sites) will remain radioactive much longer.

The preservation of this information needs to be stressed as it provides a basic linkage between subsequent generations and responsible organizations.  Future players will need information about contaminated facilities and sites so that they are aware of the potential hazards involved, can make informed decisions concerning safety, security, and possible reuse of the site.  The information must be preserved in a format that can be retrieved and understood over a long period of time, and be suitable for transfer to new media as existing media become obsolete.

This article highlights the fact that the planning and implementation of decommissioning give rise to huge amounts of information, which can be embedded in records and other resources, and eventually in knowledge accumulated by those directly involved in these activities. However, the processes required for imbuing all present stakeholders and future generations with the necessary knowledge are not being actively addressed in many projects.  So far the decommissioning community has tended to focus on the practical tools of record preservation (traditional paper and photos, and growingly, electronics). Whilst these studies might have made passing reference to the role of knowledge as a broader notion and contextual information, there have been few examples where the conceptual issues of an integrated and comprehensive knowledge management system have been tackled. To this end, due reference should be given to information availability and legality, financial resources, technical competence, education, stakeholder involvement, management systems and approaches, human factors, and knowledge analysis and integration.

Quite recently a drastic change in priorities has taken place: growing awareness of ecological long-term problems has been bringing about broader concerns than treating environmental problems only after they have occurred or at best when they are perceived to occur. The goal is to plan from the beginning in the lifecycle of an industry to minimize later environmental impacts. This life-cycle management aims to treat each stage in the life of a facility or site not as an isolated event, but as one phase in a seamless life. Thus, the planning for decommissioning should not only cover decommissioning per se, but is a continuous activity from “day one” of the nuclear facility, taking into account actual conditions, anticipated developments and trends.

As an application of this integrated approach, the IAEA-sponsored “Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management” demands not to place “undue burdens on future generations”. A statement is given by OECD-NEA in the same wavelength:” Safety of current and future generations is the paramount concern of decommissioning and decommissioning funding”. As a consequence a more prospective management of human activities also became part of the legislation and regulatory constraints in many countries including the keeping of records. However, the preservation of records is only the basis for knowledge, which is a much broader concept. While it is important to consider the longevity of the records generated, the ability of future generations to understand and make good use of them is also crucial. KNOWLEDGE IS MORE THAN INFORMATION. KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT IS ABOUT THE COMPETENCY, SKILLS, AND CONFIDENCE TO TURN INFORMATION INTO KNOWLEDGE AND USE THAT KNOWLEDGE.

The scope of this paper spreads over a finite timeframe. It does not address the long term, defined as the time when institutional control is expected to be no longer in force. The (inevitable?) loss of institutional control implies that structured knowledge management cannot be trusted to ensure continued safety and security, and other forms of protection and communications (typically passive, e.g. the threatening marks foreseen for WIPP closure) should be considered for the long term.

The focus of knowledge management is the “operating organization” (licensee) responsible for the planning and implementation of decommissioning. However the acquisition and preservation of knowledge is a necessary and coveted component of other organizations and opinion groups, namely the “stakeholders”. These include the regulatory body, the Government, international bodies, local communities, researchers, universities, historians etc. The influence of the stakeholders on a decommissioning project is large: therefore a sensible program of knowledge management should apply to the full set of stakeholders, although their primary source of information is the operating organization.

The long lasting nature of decommissioning might cause the loss of existing knowledge. A leading question is what kind of knowledge must be preserved and for whom. Selection of knowledge is vital, because preservation of all knowledge is useless, misleading and simply impractical. Besides, different stakeholders may have different concerns, and their desire for knowledge may have different aims. Those responsible for the operation of nuclear facilities often possess limited expertise in decommissioning: this also includes knowledge management policies and training programs for the plant staff and contractors involved in decommissioning. In case of old legacy sites nuclear knowledge is simply nowhere to be found and should be re-constructed anew. Reconstruction of missing information is a sad necessity for older facilities built to less stringent standards than today’s; this is usually accomplished through pre-decommissioning characterization.

As of today, attention in some decommissioning projects is focused on the technological aspects; however knowledge management needs also to be integrated in the overall decommissioning program, which has other components than technology. These components include safety, health, security, environmental, quality, human factors, productivity and financial elements. In this regard, the reader can usefully consult two IAEA publications: [Record-keeping for the Decommissioning of Nuclear Facilities: Guidelines and Experience, Technical Reports Series No.411, IAEA Vienna (2002)] and [Long Term Preservation of Information for Decommissioning Projects, Technical Reports Series No. 467, IAEA, Vienna (2008)].

Decommissioning is linked with the history of the installation from siting to final shutdown, as well as with the future redevelopment of the site and the radioactive waste generated during the operations phase and in the decommissioning process.

Personnel during any phase of a facility and/or site life cycle need to be aware of lessons learned and changes in the facility and/or site, and their knowledge should be preserved and transferred to those taking over. Some of the key issues to be addressed are the transfer of knowledge from personnel involved in operations to those involved with decommissioning, and the challenges posed by organizational change, a very frequent case indeed over the long timescales of decommissioning and associated waste management. Transfer of knowledge to/from the contractors, as bearers of a culture different from the operating organization, should be paid special attention.

Understanding the different forms that knowledge can exist in, and thereby being able to tell apart various types of knowledge, is an essential step for knowledge management. For example, it should be fairly evident that the knowledge captured in a document would need to be managed (i.e. stored, retrieved, shared, changed, etc.) in a totally different way than that accumulated over the years by an experienced craftsman (known as “tacit knowledge”). Oral memory is especially critical in decommissioning of older facilities, where structured (explicit) knowledge management mechanisms were inadequate, and much reliance was placed on people. But tacit knowledge per se will only last so long as those owing that knowledge, and ideally it should be converted into explicit knowledge to make it usable over the long timeframe of the decommissioning project. Apprenticeships, mentoring, debriefing of retirees and video documenting are valid options to tap into a senior colleague’s tacit knowledge.

In 2004, the IAEA published a report about the anticipated loss of knowledge due to an aging workforce and ways to mitigate the problem [The Nuclear Power Industry’s Aging Workforce: Transfer of Knowledge to the Next Generation, TECDOC-1399, IAEA, Vienna (2004)]. That report highlighted some of the knowledge management issues in Member States resulting from the large number of retiring nuclear power plant personnel who had been involved with the commissioning and initial operation of nuclear power plants. A follow-up publication [Risk Management of Knowledge Loss in Nuclear Industry Organizations, IAEA Publications STI/PUB/1248 (2006)] complemented the earlier report by providing a practical methodology on knowledge loss risk management as one element of an overall strategic approach to workforce management which includes work force planning, recruitment, training, leadership development and knowledge retention.  That publication was intended to increase awareness of the need to: develop a strategic approach and action plans to address the potential loss of critical knowledge and skills; provide processes and conduct risk assessments to determine the potential for loss of critical knowledge caused by the loss of experienced workers; and enable nuclear organizations to utilize this knowledge to improve the skills and competence of new and existing workers.

Given the long periods of time expected to complete large decommissioning projects, to maintain the qualifications and competence to manage decommissioning safely and cost-effectively requires more than the capabilities to read and understand the records, although these are pre-requisite elements of knowledge. For example, a set of databases intended for future dismantling should be continually reviewed/revised to (1) ensure that the record management systems is still in working conditions; and (2) to check the validity of technical assumptions taken years back and inject technological and other changes to the decommissioning project. For both these goals, the decommissioning files should not “gather dust on a shelf” (so to speak) but remain a living tool.

And finally, to maintain the skills the role of national institutions –besides the legally responsible organizations- is crucial. University courses and training (national or international) specializing in nuclear decommissioning are currently on the rise: especially in a country opting out of the nuclear industry, it is crucial that practical knowledge of decommissioning be maintained at all times and possibly long after all nuclear facilities in that country have ceased operation.

LaraiaAbout the Author:

Michele Laraia is a chemical engineer by background. An Italian citizen, he gained his first degree at the University of Rome in 1973. In 1975, he received a post-graduate degree as nuclear engineer. From 1975 to 1991, he worked at Italy’s Regulatory Body (ENEA/DISP), firstly in the capacity of reviewer of radioactive waste management systems, and since 1982 as licensing manager of decommissioning projects. During the 1982-1991 period, under his management seven small research reactors and other nuclear fuel cycle facilities were totally dismantled in Italy and their sites returned to other uses. In other plants, modifications to license conditions were implemented in preparation to decommissioning.

From July 1991 to 2011, Laraia worked at the International Atomic Energy Agency, Waste Technology Section, as Unit Leader responsible for decontamination and decommissioning of nuclear installations, closeout of uranium mining and milling sites, and environmental restoration.
The objectives of the work were to provide advice to Member States on the planning and implementation of adequate methodologies and technologies for decommissioning of nuclear and radiological installations and site remediation, to collect and disseminate information on good practices for safe and cost-effective decommissioning, and to provide direct assistance (through the Technical Co-operation  Programme) to Member States in the implementation of their programes and establishment of the required infrastructure for decommissioning and site remediation, and to strengthen their technical capabilities. His tasks included the drafting of technical publications, organization of international conferences and seminars, and the management of technical cooperation projects with developing countries, either on a national or regional scale.Some 50 technical reports and other documents for dissemination to the international community were prepared by Laraia as the Scientific Secretary, and another few dozen coordinated with him. His publications (journals, conference proceedings) amount to over 100. Over 30 less-developed countries received direct IAEA assistance with Laraia in the role of leading Technical Officer.

Laraia retired from the IAEA in 2011. Since then, he has offered consulting services in nuclear decommissioning including lecturing, training, reviewing decommissioning plans, and drafting of worldwide overviews and topical reports for a number of national/international organizations.