Knowledge transfer strategies require long-term, digital approach

Nuclear plant operators must implement long-term Knowledge Management strategies and the latest digital technology to maximize gains from recruitment drives aimed at offsetting the impact of an ageing workforce, experts told Nuclear Energy Insider.

The next generation of nuclear workers have used digital technology throughout their education. (Image credit: Izabela Habur)

Efforts by the US nuclear industry to replace retiring workers with younger staff to avoid a cliff edge in knowledge transfer have started to widen the age distribution of plant operations employees, according to the latest figures from the Nuclear Energy Industry (NEI) group.

While the closure of five US reactors in recent years has prompted utility staffing levels to fall from 62,000 in 2013 to 57,000 in 2015, hiring numbers for workers aged between 28 and 37 years have risen for the first time, according to the NEI's 2015 Nuclear Workforce Survey, published in October. The number of employees in the 48-57 year-old group has continued to decline, it said.

In particular, recruitment drives over the last 10 years have spread out the age distribution of plant operations staff, due to an increase in younger operators-in-training and a drop in mid-career professionals following transfers to other departments.

Source: NEI's 2015 Nuclear Workforce Survey

Rising nuclear power plant lifespans and the expected replacement of operational units in markets such as US and UK have increased the pressure on operators to ensure the knowledge of outgoing personnel is transferred accurately and efficiently to new recruits.

Building know-how

Knowledge accumulated from constructing, operating and decommissioning a nuclear plant can span a century.

The nuclear industry is looking to Knowledge Management (KM) to mitigate the risk of knowledge loss from worker attrition, while enhancing economic and operational performance.

The UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) issued a best practice guide to KM in March and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is to publish in early 2016 an update to its 2006 report on Risk Management of Knowledge Loss in Nuclear Industry.

In the UK, French-owned EDF Energy is implementing new KM procedures to harness expertise as it prepares to build the country’s first nuclear power plant in over 20 years.

EDF Energy plans to build the new 3.2 GW Hinkley point C EPR plant in south west England by 2025 and aims to follow this with a 3.2 GW plant at Sizewell in the south east.

EDF Energy is basing its KM strategy on the accepted key phases of knowledge development—capture, transfer, use, change and preservation-- while establishing the infrastructure that engenders an organisation-wide learning culture.

The knowledge cycle is continuous and reaches beyond the end of a nuclear project. A sound KM strategy recognises the need for getting the right knowledge to the right people at the right time.

According to Melanie Sachar, Knowledge Management Lead at EDF Energy, operators must confront the challenges of recruitment and retention in the nuclear industry.

Employers must be proactive in attracting and keeping qualified people, and EDF Energy has been developing an innovative induction process which involves "getting employees firmly embedded in the project so that everyone is satisfied with where they are,” Sachar told Nuclear Energy Insider.

“We are working with a supply chain on how the induction process will look, but it will probably be a combination of on-site and off-site induction with contractors,” she said.

Digital KM

The development of the Hinkley Point C plant comes at a time when new digital technologies present optimisation opportunities in KM.

Based on lessons learned from an early application of technology, Sachar said operators should prioritize the building of a solid knowledge-sharing culture within the organisation.

Knowledge transfer traditionally involves in-person contact through training, workshops and mentoring, which are particularly useful methods in harvesting tacit knowledge based on personal experience.

However, KM strategies that select the next generation of skilled nuclear workers will need to adapt knowledge sharing to online and digital formats that accommodate the younger learner.

Email, intranets and data archiving software are integral to many work places, but the rapid evolution of digital platforms is resulting in instant messaging replacing email and employees working collaboratively, turning to cloud-based forums such as MS SharePoint.

EDF Energy has learned that the appropriate company procedures are required to ensure workers buy in to the technology and it can be implemented successfully, Sachar said.

“We [previously] thought if we had a state-of-the-art share point programme and lots of IT support, the technology role in Knowledge Management would come on its own,” she said.

EDF Energy expects major cost and time savings if knowledge is captured and codified as it is created, and the operator will continue to improve its KM processes.

“We want people to knowledge share through training and training others around them, capturing lessons learned early and appropriately storing that knowledge for others to access and use,” Sachar said.

US talent pipelines

Despite increasing competition from gas-fired plants and renewable energy, US nuclear power generation is expected to cede only limited market share in the coming decades.

Source: US EIA Annual Energy Outlook, April 2015

The US nuclear industry has focused on creating talent pipelines as part of its knowledge sharing and training between worker generations.

David Heler, Manager of US-based Nuclear Human Resource Group, contrasted the long term strategy adopted in the UK with the US’ shorter-term focus on the next 20 years. This shorter term outlook resulted in a mixed uptake of KM strategies, he said.

“Some organisations are more strategic and mindful of the impact of demographic shifts to plant performance and the need to close the knowledge gaps…Some are behind the curve and are not making decisions and face challenges in filling the knowledge gaps,” Heler said.

Looking at the workforce scenario over the next 10 years, Heler believes smaller sites that are not part of a larger organisation could struggle to build a flow of new employees if their talent pool, such as local universities or technical colleges, is limited.

Utilities that have worked on establishing a talent pipeline and have enhanced on-site training would be successful and operators such as Southern Company, South Texas Project (STP), and operators of the 3.3 GW Palo Verde plant have taken a robust strategic approach to KM, he said.

“Palo Verde Nuclear [Generating Station] has a staffing pipeline for new talent and over the last few years it has established a relationship with local technical colleges and established talent pools, skill crafts and developed curricula and skill sets needed for workers entering into the industry. They have been very successful with that program.”

By Karen Thomas