Keeping a record

7 April 2021

Nuclear decommissioning is a complex process involving a range of stakeholders and creating an array of paper, digital and other records that need to be preserved to support day-to-day operations and beyond. A recent webinar examined the archiving challenge in more detail.

Above: Nucleus in Caithness, Scotland Photo credit: NDA


ARCHIVING FOR NUCLEAR DECOMMISSIONING: Challenges and Collaborations, hosted in December, examined the issues of building, managing, and opening an archive related to nuclear energy. The event was hosted by Archives Portal Europe and organised by the Research Center for Cooperative Civil Societies at Rikkyo University in Japan, in collaboration with the Energy Archives Network (Eogan), the UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), which shared a case study on Nucleus, its historical archive in Caithness, Scotland, and the Digital Preservation Coalition (DPC), a non-profit membership organisation that seeks to secure the preservation of digital resources.

The seminar focused on technical, managerial, and political issues related to nuclear documents, from transparency and access rights, to security and technical problems.

During the introductory presentation Kolya Abramsky, assistant archivist at the George Padmore Institute in London and Eogan board member gave a broad overview of records management in the energy and energy intensive sectors. He referenced the international standard on records management, ISO 15489, which defines records as “information created, received, and maintained as evidence and an asset by an organisation or person, in pursuit of legal obligations or in the transaction of business.” Records can have a range of uses, Abramsky said, noting they may be preserved for institutional use, evidential value, informational value or cultural/historic value.

Within energy sector institutions or organisations records can support training, long-term strategy evaluation, monitoring and development, transparency and accountability, but are also “vital for planning decommissioning,” he said.

The UK approach

The UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), which is responsible for cleaning up legacy nuclear sites in the UK, shared insight into its approach for records management.

Martin Robb, NDA’s information governance programme manager explained how the NDA holds records dating back from the 1940s through to the present day in paper, picture, moving film and digital and other formats. These records have to be maintained and kept accessible for ‘at least 300 years’ — potentially much longer.

Robb highlighted the importance of retaining records on radioactive waste packages (to manage and dispose of waste), on land quality and contamination (to remediate sites and return them to another use), as well heritage records (to show the impact of industry operations on local communities and other industries). There is also a need to ensure collaboration between other NDA sites in the UK and potentially with organisations managing decommissioning abroad.

The NDA embarked upon a project to find a single UK home for all the relevant material in 2005. After careful evaluation, a site in Caithness, Scotland, 35 miles east of the Dounreay nuclear site was selected. Construction began in 2015 and in February 2017, the doors opened on schedule at the new archive facility: Nucleus.

In addition to secure archive facilities, the triangular two- storey building has a large public area, including a reading room and community space for exhibitions, study and training. Inside there is storage for 25-30km worth of paper, along with a digital storage facility and a separate facility for storing film. The facilities are humidity and temperature- controlled and have appropriate security arrangements in place, said Robb.

Security is a key issue — and this applies to physical security, how people access information digitally and classifications applied to records.

In 2015 the NDA put a concept in place “fix backwards and fix forward”. The plan, according to Robb, was to address classification of the legacy, paper databases and electronic platforms. Once the rules were in place NDA expected operators to meet them e.g. by ensuring there is sufficient classification metadata on future records produced.

“As a government body, there is obligation to make all public records readily accessible,” Robb said.

“However, if we did that we would be in breach of our security obligations — as there are a number of records due to nuclear materials and physical security that we do not make public.”

Gordon Reid, nuclear archivist at Nucleus is responsible for managing the records of the UK civil nuclear decommissioning industry. He outlined the procedures carried out as part of the archiving process, which include:

  • Identifying what records exist and capturing metadata;
  • Appraising records to determine their value for both industry (in the ‘short term’) and researchers as part of a permanent archive;
  • Preserving records, which can include repackaging them, removing staples, elastic bands and even mould;
  • Making records available to industry and researchers on request;
  • Looking at how to supplement the existing record e.g. with oral histories.

Reid highlighted three pressing challenges being faced today: processing the ‘huge backlog’ of paper and digital records; ensuring the industry’s operational needs continue to be met; and working to create an archive for posterity.

The scale of the records backlog is vast, with millions of different records often dating back many decades spread across various UK sites. If stacked end-to-end the paper records alone would span 120km, Robb said, noting the digital archive is even larger, and includes a variety of datasets on some of the earliest systems and software. A key question NDA is looking to address is how to store these files digitally to be able to access them into the future.

Records management is further complicated by the fact that UK nuclear sites were involved in different processes from research to electricity generation, which poses a challenge for standardisation. The physical transfer of important records from these sites to the Nucleus archive creates logistical challenges, too.

Meanwhile, dealing with the backlog of records needs to be balanced with ensuring the operational and business needs of industry are met through the provision of waste package records, land quality records and records that will be required for decommissioning. Nucleus typically deals with two types of enquiries — routine and emergency. “If there is ever an emergency we need to make sure we are prepared for that,” Reid said. This includes making sure information is accessible in all situations, including loss of power and computer systems.

Dounreay’s records — more than 300,000 photographs and 200 tonnes of documentation — were the first to be moved to Nucleus. Since then records of several sites have been transferred (including Harwell), and work has begun on processing legacy paper collections, including at Sellafield, Reid said.

Getting the records into the facility is expected to take at “least another five years,” according to Robb, who noted that the COVID-19 pandemic “has slowed a lot of the processes down.” But there has been progress.

A panel of consultant reviewers have been recruited and are expected to start reviewing files and selecting records for permanent preservation from 2021, Reid said. “We are hoping that within a decade Nucleus can become a major centre for research and learning in the nuclear industry.”

The webinar recording is available at:

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