The cloud of coal has long hung over the Latrobe Valley. Now nuclear power is dividing it

<span>Latrobe Valley residents know the writing is on the wall for its coal plants. But the Coalition’s nuclear plan is creating a deep chasm.</span><span>Photograph: Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/The Guardian</span>
Latrobe Valley residents know the writing is on the wall for its coal plants. But the Coalition’s nuclear plan is creating a deep chasm.Photograph: Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/The Guardian

No matter where you are in the Latrobe Valley, you can see the smoke. The transmission lines that punctuate the region’s dairy farms and clusters of blue gums all lead to some of the country’s biggest coal-fired power plants, where the plumes of smoke soar from towers and hang over the communities around them.

This valley provides most of Victoria’s electricity, but it’s been on the edge of a precipice. Over the next 11 years, Loy Yang A and Yallourn are expected to be decommissioned. Residents know the writing is on the wall for coal, but confusion over what comes next is creating a deep chasm.

Now the valley’s communities – and those of six other locations around Australia – are on a new energy frontline. On Wednesday, the Coalition promised that, if elected to government, a part of the Loy Yang station would be one of seven sites to host a nuclear reactor.

The announcement spread quickly down the valley. Some welcome it, seeing it as a lifeline for their dying community. And then there are pockets of outrage.

Wendy Farmer is an unlikely advocate for renewables because coal is in her blood. She is a miner’s daughter; her father was a miner’s son. Her husband worked at the Hazelwood plant before it was decommissioned in 2017. The plant was infamous for two things – the 2014 fire that burned for 45 days and for being Australia’s dirtiest power station.

But Farmer is helping lead a group of advocates for a healthier and more sustainable valley – and she’s outraged by the nuclear proposal when “we have the technology we need to move forward without it”.

“It’s a slap in the face,” she says. “It’s them going, ‘You’re desperate, so you’ll take it’.”

There are many questions about the Coalition policy, including the cost, what to do about the waste, how the plants could be built and when, how many jobs would it actually create – and how geographically safe would it be to have a nuclear plant near a faultline.

“Why would you even consider putting nuclear on earthquake faultlines?” Farmer says.

“It doesn’t feel like it’s community-driven – no one in the community has been asked about it. They’ve just been told this is what our plan is.”

On Wednesday, Farmer led a snap protest outside the Gippsland National MP Darren Chester’s office. Chester has cautiously welcomed the nuclear policy, saying in a statement it could create “enduring social and economic benefits to our community”, before adding that “more detailed investigations will be required in the years ahead”.

‘Always looking for more jobs’

Traralgon is the biggest town in the valley and is wedged between the power plants and the big hole left by Hazelwood – between a brown coal past and Australia’s commitment to get to net zero emissions by 2050.

Of the 125,000 people who live in the valley, 26,000 call Traralgon home.

In the newsagent it’s buzzing. People are queueing for their Lotto ticket or a copy of the paper. The workers behind the counter won’t say much about nuclear – one thinks it’ll just get her in trouble and the other says she’s supportive but will grab the boss.

The boss is Gary Garth. He’s upfront with his opinion and cares about his community and the number of jobs. He loves the nuclear idea.

“I think there are a lot of hurdles, obviously, they’ve got to get through to do it. But I think the vision is good. And it would be great for the area,” Garth says.

“We are always looking for more jobs for locals and that’s probably the most important thing a society can have: people in employment.”

Decades ago, this area was booming – high-paying jobs created a cashed-up community. But coal is no longer king. The most recent census had unemployment sitting at 6.6%, higher than the Victorian average of 5%.

“If the governments can come up with a way of turning energy into nuclear where it’s safe, safe for the environment, safe for everyone, it’s very clean, so if it can be done, that would be a real benefit to the area,” Garth says.

In parts of the community, renewables are also seen as a threat. Garth describes windfarms as “a disaster for the environment” – he’s worried about the birds and what we do with the materials when they come to the end of their lifespan.

But it’s not a concern he holds for nuclear waste.

“Australia is a big place. They need to be able to come up with something – they seem to do in other countries around the world,” he says.

He thinks the community will vote for it and says the Coalition will have a mandate to proceed with it if it wins power – and that the state government would be foolish not to listen to the electorate.

Before the announcement, the Coalition reportedly polled each of the seven communities, with 55% of the Latrobe Valley respondents said to be supporting nuclear.

But on the streets of the valley, not everyone is convinced by the Coalition’s promise.

Ian, a former geologist, says the opposition leader, Peter Dutton, “hasn’t done his homework”.

But another resident, Jesse, thinks it will be a good creator of jobs.

“I think it’s a good thing, especially with all the coal shutting down,” Jesse says.

“I think the nuclear side of things will offer more ongoing jobs [than windfarms]. And we’ll have a stable power supply. Everyone needs the power to keep warm and cook and all that sort of stuff … We need to have a stable power supply.”

‘Softened up for nuclear’

Penelope Swales is sitting in a rare slither of winter sun on her organic farm at the bottom of the Strzelecki Ranges. It’s cut from a different cloth to Traralgon – there’s a rail trail, a brewery and a beloved community band. It lures former city slickers with its shaggy green hills and bush walks, and turns them into locals. Swales was a lawyer before she took up the plough.

“I feed 20 local families with this farm,” she says.

“That cloud between the two trees” – she points to the distance where the smoke is slowly filling the air, making a large cloud that drifts east towards Melbourne – “that’s Loy Yang. So pretty close.”

Swales is joined by her friends Marge Mackay and Lisa Mariah, who have also moved to the valley for its natural beauty and relaxed lifestyle. They don’t want nuclear.

“The demographic here is a little bit odd,” Swales says.

“While most people work in Morwell and Traralgon, progressive and pro-renewable voices don’t get a lot of a look in because most of us live up here in the Strzelecki corridor, which is bisected by the electoral boundary.

“So a bunch of us are on one side and a bunch of us are on the other side.”

She says that, over the past four years, the region has been “softened up for nuclear”. There has also been a bitter campaign over plans to build a windfarm in a pine plantation overlooking the former Hazelwood coal plant.

“People came in from outside, held public meetings, ran a very slick campaign telling people, ‘this is going to be bad for your community, this is going to destroy your community, this is going to ruin your property values, infrasound will keep you awake at night’,” Swales says.

The fight spread misinformation and put the sleepy community at loggerheads, she says.

“The more progressive people tend to keep their heads down,” she says. “There’s been some very vicious stuff going on. We’ve had vandalism. One of their friends had ‘sell-out’ sprayed on the footpath outside at home. You know, she’s a pensioner.”

The long campaign against renewables has created “fertile ground”, Swales says. If someone says “jobs”, they get the votes.

But the group of friends is determined to fight – they say they’ve done it before. Mackay jumps in and says her community was dumped with coal, was not supported after the Hazelwood fire and is now getting shunted with nuclear. She wants a different future.

“The valley has been the dumping ground for Victoria for a very long time,” she says.

“There is a lack of forward vision for future generations – this is your children and your grandchildren.”