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Case Studies
Cogema Case Study
written by Mike Faden

When you're the world's largest nuclear fuel reprocessor, it's critically important to ensure operating and safety procedures are followed exactly.

That's why Cogema, the French nuclear-fuels company, invested in a Matisse-based multimedia system that makes sure people working at its giant La Hague reprocessing plant can quickly access information to help them carry out any plant operation.

Today, staff at La Hague — the largest facility of its kind in the world — use the online hypertext system when they need help navigating their way through complex procedures. For critical or detailed operations, they can view videos that show exactly how the operations should be carried out. The system also ensures that procedures are actually read and followed, by making operators check boxes acknowledging that they have understood and taken specific steps.

The problem of ensuring compliance with procedures is not, of course, unique to Cogema. All large manufacturing or chemical facilities must ensure safe operation and comply with regulations, a task that's often made more difficult by growing volumes of complex operating and safety instructions. Facilities need to ensure that all operators are trained and kept up to date using exactly the same up-to-date version of the operating procedures, and that staff can quickly get access to information when needed. And they need to do all this while under pressure to reduce expenses.

At Cogema, the need is particularly acute. The French company is a worldwide leader in the nuclear industry, handling complex tasks in fields such as fuel reprocessing, plant engineering, exploration and mining, and nuclear fuel transportation. The La Hague plant reprocesses thousands of tons of spent fuel for utilities throughout Europe and Asia. It recovers uranium and plutonium for re-use, and conditions other waste products for safe disposal.

With so much at stake, Cogema operates under tightly controlled conditions and to defined standards, such as ISO 9002. Plants certified ISO 9002-compliant may be audited at any time without warning, and must be able to show that they can provide specified levels of access to critical information quickly and efficiently. The Matisse-based system, called Cogemo and developed by French system integrator Euriware, helps to ensure ISO 9002 compliance while meeting other practical day-to-day needs. "The nuclear industry requires the highest level of security for process control operations, and also the nuclear fuel treatment process is really complex," says Luc Boucher, Cogema project leader for the system.

The complete set of plant operating instructions is stored in Matisse on Sun Microsystems Unix servers. The instructions consist of sequences of procedures; with Matisse, the procedures can be described once and then linked into many different instruction sequences using a hypertext approach.

Operators view the instructions in the form of diagrams, text, image, video or audio, with all these data types handled and indexed by the Matisse object store. Each of these media types has specific benefits. For instance, a video can provide a clear, unambiguous way to illustrate a delicate safety operation. A diagram can provide a graphical, easy-to-follow representation of a sequence of steps and decisions involved in following a complex procedure. Using hypertext links, users can follow links within the system to quickly navigate to information they need.

The Matisse object store is designed to handle this variety of data types, and can do so without big performance penalties. In contrast, traditional relational databases, designed for neatly structured data, often incur hefty performance overheads in hypertext applications because of the numerous JOIN operations required to present information from multiple database tables.

The Matisse architecture has other advantages, too. Because all information is stored in the database, all users see exactly the same set of procedures. There's no chance that some people might use outdated or inconsistent instructions, as could happen with standalone multimedia authoring systems. The Matisse approach also makes it easier to update the system. For instance, if a plant component changes, a single database update ensures that the change is immediately reflected in all references to the component.

Access to the system is controlled by a security scheme that lets users view different information according to their level of authorization. The access provided is also affected by the status of the plant; if the status of the plant switches to alert mode, a different set of information is made available to users.

The Matisse-based system also helps enforce compliance by ensuring traceability of operator actions. Descriptions of some procedures are accompanied by boxes that the user must check to indicate they have completed a specific task. This information provides a record in Matisse of exactly which operations were carried out when and by whom. With help from Matisse, Cogema knows its people get the information they need - and that they act on that information to keep the plant safe. Says Cogema project leader Boucher: "The flexibility of the object data model, combined with the rich multimedia capabilities of Matisse, gave us a real opportunity to develop an innovative application for an industry that first requires reliability."