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Gavan McCarthy, Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre, University of Melbourne, Australia

"Draft Safety Report on Preservation and Transfer to Future Generations of Information Important to the Safety of Waste Disposal Facilities"

On Friday 15 April 2005 an important project for science archivists achieved an critical milestone; the completion of a draft safety report that was regarded as ready for the last stages of external and internal review with the aim of it being published by the International Atomic Energy Agency under their Safety Report series.

The IAEA Safety Report series, while formal publications of the Agency, are not vehicles for expressing policy but are designed to act as vehicles for stimulating discussion in the industry Given a successful review and production process it is anticipated that the report will be published in 2006.

The forward and the concluding chapter from the draft version of 15 April 2005 are quoted in their entirety below to give a clear sense of the reason for the project, which commenced in February 2002, and the conclusions that were reached by the drafting team. The report reflects input from a number of IAEA Member States but is primarily derived from ideas that come from direct experiences of working with science and technology archives over the last twenty years.

Preservation and Transfer to Future Generations of Information Important to the Safety of Waste Disposal Facilities – draft safety report 15 April 2005


The objective of radioactive waste management is to deal with radioactive waste in a manner that protects human health and the environment now and in the future without imposing undue burdens on future generations. Consequently, the imperative to manage accurate and comprehensive information to meet a variety of needs has long been acknowledged by the radioactive waste management community. Some of this information, generally in the form of records, is recognised as necessary for the management of the waste today, but the community is also aware that some of it will be required to ensure that radioactive waste continues to be safely managed over the long term.

The disposal of radioactive waste is of significant importance to the nuclear industries especially in electrical energy generation and to nuclear applications in medicine, industry, agriculture, scientific research and environmental protection.

Given the longevity of some radioactive waste, the preservation of information and its transfer to future generations is a fundamental element of any waste disposal programme.  The importance of preservation of this information needs emphasis as it provides basic linkage between successive generations.  Future generations will need information about radioactive waste disposal facilities and their contents so that they are aware of the potential hazards involved, can make informed decisions concerning the safety of the waste disposal facility, can minimize the risk of inadvertent intrusion and can make decisions on the possible reuse of the site, its contents and surrounding areas.  The information must be preserved in a form that can be deciphered and retrieved over a long period of time and that is suitable for transfer to appropriate media based on reliable and proven technology.

The report highlights the fact that the creation and subsequent management of radioactive waste gives rise to a considerable amount of information, which can be embedded in records and other resources, and knowledge accumulated by those directly involved in radioactive waste management today.  Current standards and practices encourage adequate information to be captured in the information resources generated by the industry to meet present day needs.  However, the processes required for equipping those present members of the wider community and future generations with the necessary knowledge to safely manage radioactive waste over the longer term is not being actively addressed in many cases.  When undertaking previous studies, the radioactive waste management community has tended to focus on the practical aspects of record preservation.  Whilst these studies might have made passing reference to the role of common knowledge and contextual information, there have been few examples where the conceptual issues of an integrated and comprehensive radioactive waste knowledge management system have been tackled.

It is argued in this report that the systematic preservation of contextual information is currently the most likely means by which the risks associated with epistemic failure can be mitigated. Public information infrastructure technologies such as the Internet and the World Wide Web, provide the means by which a global network of radioactive waste information resources could be built that documents this critical contextual knowledge.
6. SUMMARY AND Conclusions

6.1. Radioactive Waste Information Management

As with any highly technical endeavour, the safe and effective use of nuclear technology is based upon the accumulation and dissemination of accurate and reliable knowledge.  Where it is perceived that this knowledge will have to be repeatedly preserved and transferred without loss of meaning or capability to inform, the inherent challenges begin to raise issues.  If we then combine the 'informatics challenge' with the challenges of disposing radioactive waste in a responsible and safe way such that it does not harm human life or the environment then there is a need for taking concerted action.

Society expects that people in the nuclear industry 'know' about radioactive waste.  Knowing about radioactive waste is more than just acknowledging its existence or developing techniques for conditioning and packaging it – it is about understanding the impacts, making informed judgments and making relationships.  The potential impact on society if people lose this knowledge could be catastrophic and so there is a fundamental need, indeed a fundamental requirement, to ensure that knowledge is created, responsibly managed and passed on to future generations.  This knowledge includes a wide range of technical information in the form of scientific research, engineering analysis, design documentation, operational data, maintenance records, regulatory reviews.  It also includes the knowledge embodied in people who work with radioactive waste, in those who regulate it and those who report it.  Finally, it reflects society's values and codes of conduct, all of which are vital to establish understanding.

In recent years, a number of studies and reviews have highlighted the need for the improved management of nuclear knowledge.  These reviews have recognised that factors such as an ageing workforce, declining student enrolment figures, the increased use of contractorisation and the pace of technology are all contributors to the global loss of the 'nuclear knowledge' accumulated over the past fifty years.

Information, which is fundamental to knowledge creation, is of limited value if there is no understanding of the context in which it was originally created or subsequently amended.  Therefore, whilst the physical preservation of records is essential, the issue of knowledge preservation can only become a reality when it combines information with context.

It has not been uncommon for society to become unaware of records transferred to archives, enabling subsequent generations to discover materials that had been forgotten. While the discovery of forgotten works of art may be of historical and cultural interest, it would be difficult to argue that their absence from public consciousness posed a threat to the safety of society. However, this cannot be said for information on radioactive waste.  Information transfer linked to its contextual significance must therefore be a planned and continuous process utilizing systems that maximize its accessibility and societal

6.2. The Role of Contextual Information Frameworks

Information preservation and transfer via the use of archives and records has rarely, if ever, been instilled with such a high requirement of continuing accessibility and awareness as that required for radioactive waste.

At various times, human societies have tried to create structures that would last in perpetuity, for example, the pyramids in Egypt. Other structures created in stone, such as Stonehenge in England, have also lasted many thousands of years but it is still unclear exactly why they were built and what purposes they served in society. Our knowledge of what these entities were for and why they were built is directly proportional to the amount of surviving contextual information associated with them. Radioactive waste disposal facilities, especially those for long-lived waste, will stand alongside these monuments as the longest-lived physical entities created by society. However, future generations must never be in doubt as to why these facilities exist and the risks they pose.

This report attempts to use the example of a proven concept called 'contextual information frameworks' as a model for preserving and transferring our knowledge of radioactive waste to future generations.  Contextual information frameworks recognize that there are multiple information resources and that many of these will be associated and linked by some common features.  By making these links visible an information network can be developed thus making a key contribution to knowledge preservation and transfer through distribution, sharing and relationship mapping.

6.3. The Development of an Integrated Global radioactive waste Information Network

Society as a whole has the responsibility to preserve knowledge and the implementation of a system such as a radioactive waste contextual information framework accessible by all could go a long way to addressing this responsibility.  The Agency can play a key role in providing a focus for discussion and debate about the structure of a global system that will enable members of the nuclear industry in addition to those outside to contribute to the continuance of radioactive waste knowledge.

The concept of a contextual information framework is not size dependant in terms of the number of information sources and corresponding contextual relationships.  The model can, and indeed should, be applied at organizational as well as national and international scales.  An appropriate starting point would be to establish national systems which would then provide natural links (relationships) to other national systems thus creating a global network.  The concept therefore lends itself to being developed on a small research scale such that a better understanding can be developed and a common approach to information gathering adopted.


The application of a contextual information framework at organisational, national and international level, supported by traditional records preservation and transfer techniques, has the potential to address an increasingly pressing issue of the long-term management of radioactive waste information.

The aim of this report is to stimulate further discussion on the concept and to provide an indication of how the concept could be applied.

Furthermore, the report argues that the development and maintenance of a contextual information framework for radioactive waste disposal facilities based on the network of responsibility and accountability is currently the best means to make effective use of archival materials for the purpose of information transfer.

The report also introduces ideas and concepts from the archival world and the relatively new science of open complex networks to provide a foundation for examining methodologies, processes and systems that will enable the formulation of possible solutions to the challenges of intergenerational information transfer.
A contextual information framework schematic representation

Caption: This schematic diagram illustrates the way relationships between entities forms clusters but also reveals the way the radioactive waste community forms a global network.


Consultants Meetings

Vienna, Austria, March 2002, February 2004, April 2005

Technical Meeting

Vienna, Austria, June 2004

Principal Authors

Gavan McCarthy, Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre, University of Melbourne, Australia

Ian Upshall, Nirex Ltd, United Kingdom