Nuclear knowledge

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Knowledge in the nuclear domain. Nuclear knowledge is characterised by a unique combination of factors which make the management of it particularly challenging, these are: fragmentation, safety, complexity, government involvement, high costs, long timescales, international cooperation and education.

Fig 1 Euler diagram of Knowledge base and its relationship to Nuclear knowledge and Critical knowledge


Nuclear knowledge is characterised by a unique combination of factors which make the management of it particularly challenging, these are: fragmentation, safety, complexity, government involvement, high costs, long timescales, international cooperation and education.


Nuclear knowledge is unique in many ways — different from knowledge developed and used in other industrial domains.

  1. First of all, the safety of nuclear facilities must be considered. This includes security aspects as well as non-proliferation issues which are due to the dual (peaceful and non-peaceful) nature of nuclear technology, and of high public concern.
  2. Nuclear knowledge is complex, involving many different areas of expertise, such as physical, chemical, radiological and biological interactions of materials as well as the sociological, economic, political and security aspects, which must all be considered as a whole. As a consequence, development costs are high, often requiring significant governmental support.
  3. Nuclear knowledge must be developed and retained over long time frames to service operational nuclear facilities and over even longer time frames to enable global sustainable growth. As further elucidated below, these unique characteristics make efforts to effectively manage nuclear knowledge most desirable or even mandatory.
  4. For the development of nuclear knowledge, cooperation is essential, since many individuals, nuclear organizations and Member States have legitimate cause for both contributing to and accessing the nuclear knowledge base.
  5. Education is the fundament for people to acquire the experiences and insights needed to create new knowledge and apply it to emerging challenges.

In response to an increased awareness of the importance to manage nuclear knowledge in many Member States, the IAEA has published a number of technical guidance documents, including nuclear management objectives containing the highest level issues for knowledge management that are commonly agreed as being relevant and applicable to activities in the nuclear sector.

Basic scientific nuclear knowledge has been accumulating for around one hundred years but this has been further enhanced through practical experience of its application over the last sixty years. The combination of this ‘pure and applied’ nuclear knowledge has brought our understanding to its current mature stage, with significant contributions being made to a wide variety of secondary applications. However, this extensive portfolio of nuclear knowledge — often derived with government support — is beginning to exceed present commercial demand with the consequence that some of it is in danger of being permanently lost. The risk is compounded by the fact that there is an absence of effective systems for transferring the knowledge between successive generations and between organizations as well.

A wide variety of stakeholders will legitimately claim an interest in managing, using, applying, developing and sharing nuclear knowledge — each with their own objectives, requirements, and limitations.

Safety, Security and Non-Proliferation

Ensuring safety requires professional people with good education and training, wide experience and knowledge, as well as the availability of high quality, up-to-date documentation. The loss of nuclear safety knowledge, outdated knowledge not reflecting the state of the art (particularly the feedback on international operation experience), or lack of access to up-to-date nuclear knowledge imposes a considerable risk on the safe operation of nuclear facilities. With respect to safety, a sharing culture between organizations, also on international levels, is mandatory.

In contrast, safeguard requirements concerning security and non-proliferation issues may demand restrictions on sharing information and knowledge. Therefore, an appropriate balance in managing nuclear knowledge is required between nuclear safety and safeguards requirement


The effective use of nuclear power and other nuclear applications requires highly complex and multifaceted knowledge of several disciplines, including many branches of basic science and engineering, law, economics, finance, commerce, management and public communication. The acquisition of considerable nuclear knowledge is a necessary pre-requisite for any country aspiring to harness the benefits of nuclear science and engineering.

High cost

Largely due to its complexity, the development of nuclear knowledge is quite costly. Nuclear facilities, including many experimental facilities, are large, incorporating highly sophisticated components. Highly specialized multidisciplinary problem solving skills are required of nuclear professionals. The development and retention of the necessary human resources required for success are inherently expensive. Due to this cost, a high level of government support and close monitoring of activities is essential during the development, application and transfer of nuclear knowledge.


The life cycle of many nuclear operating facilities from design to decommissioning stretches over several decades. Potential radioactive waste management effects may persist for several centuries. Accordingly, nuclear knowledge has to be maintained and transferred in many of its facets to successive generations of professionals, imposing strong requirements of nuclear knowledge management.

Importance of international cooperation

Nuclear knowledge has been used successfully in the past by many countries as a catalyst for socioeconomic development. It is becoming increasingly clear that a wide range of benefits can be obtained from the appropriate use of nuclear power and other nuclear applications. However, the ‘appropriate’ use presupposes a certain level of maturity in the industrial and societal context, especially in terms of accountability and decision making systems and a general awareness and understanding of nuclear issues beyond mere technological aspects. Hence, it is not surprising that international cooperation has played a crucial role in the development of nuclear knowledge right from the very beginning of its application for civilian purposes. Indeed, the importance of international cooperation to any country embarking on a nuclear programme today is a unique characteristic of nuclear science and technology.

Government involvement

Owing to the long term return on investment compared with other industries, as well as safety, security and non-proliferation issues, a high level of government involvement and close monitoring of activities is essential during the development, application and transfer of nuclear knowledge. This involvement is necessary not only to underwrite a large portion of the development cost but also to manage nuclear liability (including its trans boundary nature), nuclear safety concerns and the prevention of nuclear knowledge misuse under all circumstances.

Education and Training

Achieving Competency is generally a two-step process: both Education and Training is needed, although the weight of these two components may vary. Education is A managed process of individual learning, especially at a school or university that provides basic knowledge that underpins any other activities the individual may engage in at a later stage and is delivered mainly in accredited academic institutions, whereas training is A managed process of individual learning which is focused on developing specialized knowledge needed to meet local organizational unit needs, an application-driven process occurring either on the site of the work, or in specialized training centers. Education, transfers basic knowledge which can be used in many fields. On the other hand, training is mainly oriented towards the Acquisition of specialized knowledge which is necessary to perform a specific job.


Nuclear knowledge does not present itself as a closed, world-wide available body of knowledge: today, nuclear knowledge exhibits strong global imbalances, with pronounced diversity in government strategies ranging from renewal of nuclear energy to phasing out, in the development levels of nuclear infrastructure, and in the operation of nuclear facilities. Furthermore, nuclear knowledge is distributed and fragmented within the multiplicity of different stakeholders.

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Critical knowledge

Nuclear knowledge management