No to nuclear in the Latrobe Valley

9 July 2024
Cormac Mills Ritchard

“Don’t dump on us again”, says Wendy Farmer, president of the Latrobe Valley community group Voices of the Valley and a local community organiser for Friends of the Earth. The Latrobe Valley is one of Liberal Party leader Peter Dutton’s proposed sites for nuclear power reactors, which would replace the Loy Yang coal power station.

The region is already saddled with several toxic industries. As Farmer explains to Red Flag, “We have a waste-to-energy, we have a lead smelter, we have a magnesium smelter, we have the power stations ... Just today I’ve gone outside and you should see the coal dust on my rubbish bins. It is just everywhere. People are like, ‘Why are we being the dumping ground again? Why are we just being told once again what’s good for us and what we need?’”

Wendy knows what it’s like for a community to be treated as expendable. She became an activist in 2014 during the Hazelwood coal mine fire, which lasted for 45 days. The fire blanketed the area with smoke, causing the deaths of at least 60 people according to extensive research carried out by Voices of the Valley. This was no accident, but a result of the owner ENGIE’s cost-cutting and negligence. “They knew the risks two days before the fire got into the mine and chose to ignore it. I think they put a couple of extra staff on over the weekend, when we were gonna have the hottest, windiest weekend. Any fool could have read that.”

The fire might also have been prevented through the mine’s watering system, a critical safety measure meant to keep the coal face wet and guard against bushfires, which the owners had previously dismantled.

“My husband at the time worked at Hazelwood”, Wendy says. “Hazelwood knew that things needed to be repaired. Hazelwood knew that they didn’t have the water where they needed it.” You can never completely trust a company, she says. “Industry has known about asbestos, yet they’ve used it. Industry has known about the stone [in kitchen bench-tops], yet they’ve used it. Industry has known about dangers before and covered them up.”

If companies like ENGIE axe safety measures and governments cover up their crimes, why should we expect nuclear to be any different? Wendy describes Dutton’s nuclear proposal as a fantasy: “No plan, no proposal, no detail”. But her objections run deeper than that. The risks of a nuclear failure weigh heavily on a community with such a recent history of disaster and injustice.

“If there’s a failure and the kids are at school or anywhere else”, Wendy says, “nuclear disaster would kill ... That sort of radiation you don’t have much chance. If the kids are at school, it’s too late to go and get them. And if they’re not dead, the damage is done. You can’t reverse the damage”. Worse still, Wendy explains, the valley sits on an earthquake fault line. “We’ve had many earthquakes. It’s only a matter of time before we have a big one.”

Fortunately, through Hazelwood the community taught itself how to fight toxic industries. On the morning Dutton’s proposed sites were revealed, Wendy organised a snap protest outside local Nationals MP Darren Chester’s office. “The people who joined the anti-nuclear rally were pretty upset, pretty pissed off”, Wendy says. “‘How dare they? We don’t want nuclear reactors.’”

Not everyone is opposed to nuclear, however; the community’s views are mixed. According to a News Corp survey last month (which polled only 113 people), 59 percent of Latrobe Valley residents would be comfortable with a nuclear reactor being built in their state or region. “A lot of people who support nuclear are supporting it because there will be jobs. But in fact there won’t be jobs for 30 or 40 years”, says Wendy. Construction on the nuclear power plant cannot begin, Wendy explains, until after Loy Yang has been shut down and rehabilitated, which won’t be for at least a decade.

Affordable energy is the other argument opening people to nuclear. But nuclear-generated power is far more expensive than renewables, given the extensive capital costs. According to the GenCost 2023-24 report published by the CSIRO and the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), while wind and solar PV combined are estimated to cost between $73 and $128/MWh, large-scale nuclear will cost between $141 and $233/MWh, or $230 to $382/MWh for small modular reactors.

“Hazelwood was a David and Goliath”, Wendy says. “I felt the community won. For sure the company weren’t punished enough, but the community won. We have to stand together and we can win this.”

Read More

Red Flag
Red Flag is published by Socialist Alternative, a revolutionary socialist group with branches across Australia.
Find out more about us, get involved, or subscribe.

Original Red Flag content is subject to a Creative Commons licence and may be republished under the terms listed here.