Nuclear wasteRetaining Knowledge of Nuclear Waste Management

Published 7 April 2021

Sandia National Laboratories have begun their second year of a project to capture important, hard-to-explain nuclear waste management knowledge from retirement-age employees to help new employees get up to speed faster. The project has experts share their experience with and knowledge of storage, transportation, and disposal with next generation scientists.

Have you ever started a new job and spent a lot of time figuring out everything from how to get paper for the printer to whether an important customer prefers quick phone calls to emails?

Imagine if that important customer was the federal government and the project you were working on was evaluating the development of a geologic repository for the permanent disposal of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste.

Experts at Sandia National Laboratories just began their second year of a project to capture important, hard-to-explain nuclear waste management knowledge from retirement-age employees to help new employees get up to speed faster.

“At Sandia, we’ve had over 45 years of experience in nuclear waste management in the U.S. and internationally,” said Tito Bonano, nuclear energy fuel cycle senior manager. “But the expertise and experiences of people like myself, Peter Swift, Ken Sorenson and others that have retired or are retirement age, walks away when we leave the organization. We refer to that kind of expertise and experiences as tacit knowledge, and we had to act to stop the bleeding of tacit knowledge.”

Tacit knowledge includes understanding the boss’s opinions as to why a competitor is doing well or the best way to work with an important customer. Such knowledge is often difficult to explain. Explicit knowledge, which includes things such as a phone number or the temperature of water, is easier to document and communicate to others.

Explicit knowledge can be captured in reports and spreadsheets, but tacit knowledge is often learned through mentorship, observation and practice.

“Most large organizations, laboratories and government agencies are very good at saving their explicit knowledge, in the form of reports and documents,” said Janette Meacham, the nuclear energy fuel cycle program’s licensing and knowledge management lead. “But the knowledge that comes from going into Tito’s office with a difficult problem and having him say, ‘I remember 15 years ago we did something similar, and this is how we did it, and you need to watch out for this other thing,’ is not captured in a report.”

Through focus group discussions,  a multiday workshop, a series of four-hour deep dives and recording interviews with retiring employees, the knowledge management team led by Meacham captured this tacit knowledge and is in the process of organizing and tagging it to make it easier for early career and new employees to access.

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