How Dounreay is navigating the biodegradable municipal waste ban


Dounreay core drilling activity

Scottish Resources Conference 2023 speaker, Kerryn Sievewright, Waste Specialist Technical Lead at Dounreay, discusses how fostering an engaged and sustainability-minded employee culture can help deal with the impacts of the biodegradable municipal waste (BMW) ban in Scotland.

Commissioned in 1955, and located on a former RAF base “doun” or “down” from the far north village of Reay in Caithness, Dounreay was once at the cutting edge of research into the operation of fast (breeder) reactors. It’s part of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authorities (NDA) Estate, which is charged with sustainably remediating the UK’s nuclear legacy, reducing waste and achieving net zero.

Today, it strives to be recognised globally for decommissioning excellence whilst also supporting sustainable alternative employment for its staff and the wider community, as well as leaving a lasting positive legacy for the region and the site suitable for its next use.

Dounreay waste vaults facility
Waste vaults facility at Dounreay.

The decommissioning mission it faces is complex, and its location, far from major population centres, is now one of its biggest challenges because there are limited large-scale waste handling and processing facilities in the vicinity.

To mitigate these challenges, Dounreay often manages its waste in-house. These measures have included the construction of a near-surface low-level radioactive waste disposal facility, an intermediate-level waste store and a controlled waste processing, storage and bulking facility.

Much of the non-radioactive waste will be suitable for reuse on-site, or segregated at source and recycled. However, a large proportion of the material is not suitable for reuse and is problematic/difficult to segregate further. As a result, the local landfill is frequently identified as the optimal waste route which balances the needs of the decommissioning mission with value.

The BMW ban is an opportunity for Dounreay to underline its commitments to decommissioning excellence.

While it could be said that, given unlimited resources, finance and time, everything is recyclable, there is clearly a balance of cost and benefit to consider. Therefore, Dounreay seeks to ensure value for money when carrying out decommissioning in tandem with environmental, social and legacy value.  

With the forthcoming ban on biodegradable wastes, however, it’s anticipated that some landfills, including the only site near Dounreay, will cease landfilling operations entirely by 2026. This will mean that wastes previously sent from Dounreay to landfill will need alternative cost-effective solutions.

These solutions must be multi-directional, and Dounreay is actively:

  • Increasing its in-house capabilities, including implementing additional waste routings, utilising specialist equipment such as X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) and considering expansion of on-site bulking, segregation and treatment.
  • Strengthening its supply lines and relationships with commercial partners.
  • Working collaboratively with others in the region, for example through the Focus North project.
  • Promoting and harnessing positive employee culture, such as the creation of the “Dounreay Green Network”.

The creation of the employee-led Dounreay “Green Network” is a fantastic example of how employee-led groups, which typically reflect the views and aspirations of both staff and the wider community, can challenge existing views, raise awareness and identify opportunities that may otherwise have been missed.

Dounreay recently worked collaboratively with the Green Network to successfully undertake food waste diversion trials. The results recommended that, despite not being legally required, a segregated food waste route should be implemented across site and following an assessment of options, a route was identified that would also be cost-effective.

The Dounreay Fast Reactor (DFR)
The Dounreay Fast Reactor (DFR).

While food waste diversion accounts for a small proportion of waste generated, it presents further opportunities for residual waste to also be diverted from landfill and sent to a materials recovery facility (MRF) or used as recyclate-derived fuel (RDF).

Ultimately, the BMW ban is an opportunity for Dounreay to underline its commitments to decommissioning excellence.

Engendering an engaged and sustainability-minded employee culture will ensure that the changes required to adapt to the ban, whether through increased collaboration with other businesses in the far north and wider supply chain or finding innovative new ways to operate, will play a vital role in leaving a lasting positive legacy for the region.

You can hear Kerryn Sievewright discussing the next steps for the circular economy in Scotland on “The Future is Reuse!” panel during day two of the Scottish Resources Conference 2023. Book your place today to attend this innovative event featuring two days of unmissable content from experts across the Scottish industry.

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