Interview with Prof. Yanko Yanev CEO, Nuclear Knowledge Management Institute, Vienna

Professional Opinions

September 19, 2022

by Susan Cohen

Why is nuclear knowledge management so important? How can nuclear knowledge be managed effectively? Where is nuclear knowledge documented and stored? How can the tacit knowledge of nuclear professionals be accessed and preserved? Does Nuclear Knowledge Management gets the proper attention from nuclear managers?

Dr. Yanko Yanev — CEO of the Nuclear Knowledge Management Institute, Vienna, and former head of the IAEA Nuclear Knowledge Management Programme — can answer questions such as these. Drawing on his experience as researcher, writer, senior manager and international authority on nuclear knowledge management (NKM), he talks to Susan Cohen about his past and present activities in this fascinating and vital discipline.

Susan Cohen: Why is nuclear energy important?

Yanko Yanev: This question has different answers but the principle answer is that using nuclear energy is probably the most complex and science-loaded area of human activity, which involves the use of all our knowledge in physics, chemistry, material science medicine and any scientific area — you name it.  Some years ago, the IAEA issued a fundamental report entitled Nuclear Energy Basic Principles (2008), the most important principle being that the benefits far outweigh the risks.

Today people are beginning to understand the importance of nuclear power: it protects the climate, it works 24/7. It is based on hard-core science and knowledge. Anti-nukes don’t like science; they don’t understand it or want to learn it. Someone told me that people live on emotions — they find nuclear is bad because of Chernobyl and Fukushima — for each, hard-core science explains why they happened and how to avoid such accidents — but people don’t listen to science.

So we can appeal to emotions. Currently, we’re faced with avoiding fossil fuel contamination of the atmosphere — the 3 km thin layer of air in which we breathe and live. Nuclear saves lives, protects the climate, stabilizes the economy, provides solid security of energy supply. It doesn’t need sunshine or wind. Maybe through emotions people can see the real benefit of nuclear power.

SC: What is nuclear knowledge?

YY: I mentioned before that the knowledge needed to run a nuclear energy system safely and efficiently integrates physics, chemistry, mathematics, reactor physics, material science and all knowledge applied in nuclear installations. A country using nuclear energy should possess competence in all relevant engineering and scientific disciplines. Nuclear knowledge critically touches safety. A reactor has to be safe to be on line, provide us with its benefits, and make money. Otherwise it will be shut down. Knowledge, which is the critical resource must be managed somehow, which has led to NKM.

SC: Why is managing nuclear knowledge vital?

YY: All assets have to be managed, so we must understand the conditions under which nuclear knowledge exists, is transferred and shared. If only few people at a nuclear power plant (NPP) are knowledgeable, you’re in a very critical position. What if they are absent (sick, on vacation). The knowledge and competence necessary to run a plant must be readily available as required in order to keep it safe. For example, after the Fukushima accident, I had the unique opportunity of interviewing the manager of the Daini NPP, 30 km south of Daichi. It was the same earthquake and tsunami — but the plant could be saved using the well managed nuclear knowledge of the people who built and those who ran the plant. Also vitally important was that a diesel generator placed a bit higher than those flooded at Daichi continued to function.

SC: How did the IAEA introduce NKM?

YY: In the beginning, it wasn’t called knowledge management. In the 90s, people didn’t want to study science, which 20 years on would have reflected badly, with a lack of trained scientists. When DG Hans Blix invited me to join the IAEA, the first thing I did was to write a document for a General Conference resolution that education & training were critical. It was unanimously supported. From education & training, we went to knowledge & competence, to qualification & training in the industry. This already existed but we started to think in terms of process.

Later, DG El Baradei once asked me how I could manage what was in his head (i.e. tacit knowledge)! In fact, we don’t manage the knowledge itself; we manage the environment for its existence and availability. NKM was then established at the IAEA, more via a political route, by bringing Member States on board. We got fantastic support from the big nuclear countries — such as Canada, France, Russia and the USA.

SC: What types of nuclear knowledge need to be managed?

YY: Different types of nuclear knowledge exist. Explicit knowledge is stored in reports, safety analyses, and guidance manuals. It’s always there when needed. It becomes information, which again converts into knowledge for those who understand the subject. Implicit/tacit knowledge lodges in employees’ heads and can be transferred through on-the-spot mentoring. And some knowledge is not on the spot but, for instance, with an equipment producer or a specialist you can contact — relationship knowledge. In my institute, we have developed a knowledge matrix, used to manage the process: e.g. knowledge concerning all reactor technical issues.

SC: What are some of your past and present NKM projects?

YY: One of NKM’s most important projects at the IAEA was the School for Nuclear Energy. World renowned nuclear managers taught young ones. It was recognized by the journal Nuclear Engineering as the no. 1 training event in 2012. Also, several NKM schools run by the IAEA in Trieste have generated a network of about 700 people who continue to share their knowledge. Many have become directors. At the schools, they learned a mindset — why you should manage, share, and preserve nuclear knowledge and, thus, increase the value of this resource.

Currently, I’m writing a book on NKM (60–70 pages). I focus on fundamentals — such as the principle that NKM is a core activity — not an option. I explain the philosophy of NKM and describe its implementation. My over 20 years of experience will flow into it.

SC: What are the greatest challenges we face in NKM?

YY:  One challenge is long-term NKM — the useful life of an NPP, with radwaste, will last 300 years. A task for NKM is informing nuclear staff after 10 generations about what has been done and what must be done.

Another is maintaining nuclear safety. My safety principles are very simple — people working in nuclear should know and understand what they’re doing very well and know the consequences of mistakes if they do it wrong. What happens if you don’t follow rules? You must be very responsible — these requirements are the foundation of safety culture. With a good safety culture, nuclear can be the planet’s prime energy source.

SC: How can NKM raise awareness of nuclear energy’s role in mitigating climate change effects?

YY: Besides reliable energy supply, climate change is one of the strongest arguments for nuclear. A NPP doesn’t affect either the climate or the environment around it. A recent UNSCEAR report to the UN General Assembly revealed that renewables have a greater radiation effect on the environment than nuclear. The report was approved by 194 countries. If members of the public are afraid of ionizing radiation, they should realize that they get more from solar panels.

SC: In a nutshell, what is your message to decision-makers and to the public at large?

YY: If the development goals propagated by the UN are to be achieved, energy is needed. If we look at existing energy sources, whether we want it or not, we’ll encounter nuclear energy. With fossil fuels on the way out, more than 60 countries are returning to nuclear and asking for assistance. A key responsibility is to create and maintain the knowledge and competence to run an NPP safely.

SC: Beyond NKM, will nuclear power survive, considering its risks as well as benefits?

YY: I’m becoming a very optimistic skeptic! What will keep it on the agenda is climate change. But that’s a topic for future discussion.

Vienna, June 2022

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