As news of Japan’s nuclear radiation crisis hits our screens, it is apt to remind ourselves just how gung-ho some of our own senior bureaucrats and politicians were about building nuclear power stations in Victoria as recently as 1980.

The former State Electricity Commission had assessed at least 10 coastal locations for their suitability as nuclear power station sites. A massive amount of seismic, atmospheric, environmental, and geological work was done including studies on public exclusion zones and estimates of what would happen if radioactive material were to be released.

The sites included Kirk Point at the Werribee sewage farm, Red Bluff on French island, Breamlea near Torquay, Powlett River and Corner Inlet. Others were at Stony Point, Glenaire, Princetown, Cape Reamur and Tyrendarra.

Kirk Point was favoured due to its isolation. An internal SEC report commented: “While the MMBW (Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works) sewage farm remains in existence, evacuation of the very few people associated with the farm would be a simple matter and could be achieved in so short a time that individual exposure could be held to a very low level. There would be no necessity to consider the evacuation of the population at Werribee or Norlane even if those populations were to grow to several times the 1966 census level, as might be the case by 2000 AD.”

The Victorian electricity authority’s assessments envisaged a 2000-megawatt power plant and recommended a one kilometre restricted access exclusion zone surrounding containment buildings; beyond that, it suggested a five-kilometre boundary be established in which only low population density would be allowed.

What did the US, and now Australia, say about evacuating Fukushima’s surrounds — was it something like get out if you are within 80 kilometres of the reactor? Goodbye Werribee, and Melbourne is only 33 kilometres away.

We know about the power station research because in the mid-1980s when Freedom of Information laws lived up to their name, I obtained access to more than 3000 folios kept by the SEC on creating a nuclear industry in the state. The resulting articles, which were published in a series in The Age, were dismissed as “historical” by the then Labor government, which had passed legislation prohibiting nuclear power. But they highlighted more than 20 years of research by the state’s power authority and show just how enthusiastic the agency was in pursuing a nuclear future despite Victoria’s massive brown coal reserves. In 1967, the former secretary of the Ministry of Fuel and Power, one W.H. Roberts, wrote in a briefing paper to his minister: “Even if the SEC decides in favour of brown coal for the next base station … a nuclear power plant is almost certain for Victoria in the early 1980s and will be followed by others.”

A secret report for the SEC by British Electricity International in November 1980 envisaged the construction of a power station, notionally in Portland, consisting of two 1200-megawatt reactors and four 600-megawatt turbo generators. Its timeline suggested the station could have been operational by 2000.

The authors well understood that such a station could be politically divisive and recommended that well before the project was announced, it would be important to win the trust of the reactor’s future neighbours. PR guru Noel Turnbull could write a thesis on this:  “A useful practice of Electricite de France is worth citing,” BEI’s report advised.

“They install a representative, usually a bright young engineer with a family, in the district so that he is readily available to answer questions from local people and to integrate with the local community.”  Once the project was approved, local representation could be increased but senior staff would be kept away from the public — “kept in reserve for the most high level and formal hearings, leaving well qualified but less senior engineers and other staff to conduct discussions in an informal atmosphere, where they are less likely to be labelled in advance as too partial, or over-exposed to press publicity that they are no longer able to talk without constraints”.

SEC staff appearing at public inquiries would also need careful coaching on the political implications of their comments. “They must be able to understand the context from which questions may be put to them and not merely make technical statements which may be clear to them but may be difficult to understand by, for example, the press, politicians or concerned citizens.” The report says a PR campaign would cost between $500,000 and $1 million in its early stages, reaching $5 million by the time work started on a reactor.

BEI’s report in 1980 found the capital costs of a power station would be more than $3 billion with annual running costs of $56 million, prompting the SEC to announce it had no plans to go nuclear because Victoria had brown coal reserves capable of serving its needs for up to 200 years.

After Labor was elected soon after, the then Minister for Minerals and Energy, David White, announced legislation would be introduced to prohibit the construction and operation of nuclear power stations.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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