International Conference on Nuclear Knowledge Management: Q&A with the Scientific Secretary

John de Grosbois, Head of the Nuclear Knowledge Management Section at the IAEA. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

The IAEA will be hosting the Third International Conference on Nuclear Knowledge Management (NKM) from 7-11 November 2016. We interviewed the IAEA’s top expert on the subject to discuss the importance of NKM, the challenges that countries face in maintaining nuclear knowledge and how the conference will address them.

Why is NKM, and this conference, important?

Nuclear technology is complex and very multi-disciplinary. Embarking on a nuclear energy programme and ensuring its success and sustainability are long-term commitments for a Member State. This requires significant investment. In order to ensure safety, each Member State has a responsibility not only to establish adequate technical knowledge and expertise in their nuclear organizations but also to maintain this knowledge and ensure its availability when needed. For developing countries, this means, among others, building the education and training programmes required for the adequate provision of technical specialists.

The conference is an opportunity for nuclear managers, leaders and for policy- and decision-makers to learn about the various challenges and approaches to NKM and gain a better understanding of the importance of taking a proactive and strategic approach to it in their own countries and organizations. They will also learn how the IAEA can assist them.

What are the current challenges faced in NKM?

Member States are facing many important issues in NKM. The ongoing supply of new talent is always of concern, particularly in newcomer countries and in countries facing an aging nuclear workforce. Situations can be exacerbated in some nuclear organizations by the reduction in government funding or by major transitions in the life of nuclear facilities.

We are also seeing a steady trend towards the internationalization of the nuclear sector and while this may bring benefits, it also brings difficulties such as language and cultural barriers and problems associated with the recognition and standardisation of qualifications. Both are linked to the ever increasing mobility of a global nuclear workforce.

The need to educate and train competent nuclear managers to ensure effective leadership, to establish a strong safety culture and to provide oversight on risk-informed technical decision processes remains a priority.

Another ongoing challenge is the range of different organizational business models under which licensed facilities operate and the NKM issues that these may present. In many cases, reliance on strategic outsourcing for important business functions, like outage planning and management, can bring tangible benefits, but measures must also be in place to ensure critical knowledge and skills are maintained and available. In many Member States we have seen a gradual reduction of nuclear R&D budgets due to changing government funding priorities and support. This has created the need to find ways to preserve important research results and data that would be both expensive and difficult to reproduce, and that yet may be needed in the future

What are the latest trends in NKM to address those challenges and how will the conference discuss them?

Much is happening recently in Member States with NKM. A significant change is that many countries are realizing the strategic importance of having a national strategy and policy on NKM. Through this, they can ensure that their nuclear energy technology is well supported over the whole lifecycle with an adequate national infrastructure of nuclear organizations. This includes technical support organizations, national labs and experimental facilities, regulators, educational institutions and local suppliers.

There is now an increasing number of projects where construction and operation of nuclear plants rely on non-domestic workforce. Knowledge transfer to and retention by the future owners require special attention.

There is also a greater focus on the importance of a strong university education system in the nuclear field in most Member States, and the IAEA is very active in supporting and building nuclear education networks to facilitate sustainable capability development of national nuclear educational systems. The IAEA is also helping universities implement masters’ programmes in nuclear technology management to “nuclearize” engineers and give them access to management education appropriate for the nuclear sector.

The conference will address these challenges in topical sessions and panel discussions with prominent experts.

How can we ensure that appropriate technical expertise and experience, along with a strong safety culture, is kept available throughout the nuclear technology life cycle?

There are many contributing factors here but clearly the most basic underlying issue is knowing what expertise and specializations are essential and may be at risk and being proactive about ensuring that these competencies are established and maintained to meet organizational needs. The role of senior managers in NKM is a strategic one since managers must provide the leadership and oversight to ensure the organization is being duly diligent and is able to respond in a timely manner to emerging issues.

The IAEA’s NKM programme is helping Member States provide continuous professional development through complementary training and education programmes and technology supported learning.

What are the benefits of coming to this conference?

I think most of the participants will see the event as a good way to exchange ideas and get up to speed on “who is doing what” in terms of NKM best practices. The conference will have a practitioner’s focus and will emphasize real-world problems, experiences and solutions. It is also a great way to network with others sharing similar problems and interests and to learn how the IAEA can assist.

What are the expected outcomes of this conference?

Overall, we hope that it will result in increased awareness, appreciation and understanding of NKM issues and that by sharing experiences, participants will find new and effective approaches to apply at home.

Another important outcome will be a stronger recognition that nuclear organizations are essentially knowledge-driven, and that safety and safety-culture depend on establishing and maintaining an appropriate knowledge base in the organization and ensuring its effective utilization. Understanding the link between effective knowledge processes and organizational performance in nuclear organizations is important, and here performance should be measured in terms of safety and economics.