'Reflections' mural at Wellington Dam
Collie's shift from coal mining includes luring tourists to visit the world's largest dam mural. Image by HANDOUT/WESTERN AUSTRALIAN GOVERNMENT
  • politics

Nuclear plan a ‘distraction’ as coal town transitions

Aaron Bunch June 1, 2024

A Western Australian coal town lined up as a potential site for a nuclear power station says the plan is a distraction as it works to ditch fossil fuels.

The federal coalition has floated plans to add nuclear energy to the power grid should it win government by building reactors at sites currently home to either coal or gas-fired power stations.

The sites have not yet been announced but the list is believed to include Collie, 200km south of Perth and home to about 7500 people, where a state government-supported pivot away from the coal industry is underway.

Coal file image
 Collie in WA’s south has been home to coal mining for more than 100 years. Image by Jeremy Ng/AAP PHOTOS 

Shire President Ian Miffling said the $662 million Just Transition plan had created a “buzz” in the town and the federal coalition’s nuclear power plan hadn’t received much attention.

“Collie hasn’t been consulted at all and we don’t know any of the details of the policy and what they propose, so we’ve not given it too much credence at this stage,” he told AAP.

“(But) you don’t have to be Einstein to know that Collie would have to be on the radar, considering that we’ve got coal-fired power stations with the hub of the transmission network and it’s probably where all the all the connections would be made.”

Mr Miffling said locals were focused on bolstering their skills for jobs in new industries, like the recently approved green steel mill and Synergy’s $1.6 billion battery to store renewable energy once coal is retired as an energy supply in 2030.

“The potential for nuclear, which would be a long way down the track, is a bit of a distraction and it really doesn’t need us to spend too much time talking about it at this point,” he said.

Collie’s rich history as the coal town that powered WA to become the nation’s economic engine room has been captured in an expansive mural trail connecting nearby Wellington Dam with the town.

The outdoor art gallery and the development of adventure tourism infrastructure, such as mountain bike trails, have contributed to the community’s growing optimism and boosted visitor numbers by more than 70 per cent in the past five years.

Mr Miffling said the town had become a destination “rather than just a place that you pass by” but declined to go down the “rabbit hole” on whether the nuclear reactor plan could one day threaten the growing tourism industry.

Local state Labor MP Jodie Hanns said federal opposition leader Peter Dutton and the coalition were out of touch with what was happening on the ground in Collie and floating plans for a reactor in the town was “arrogant and disrespectful”.

“The federal Liberals are not interested in a conversation about Collie, their only interest is in the politics,” she said.

“And the losers in this (are) my community and the people that live and work here.”

Yallourn Power Station
 Coal-fired power stations such as Yallourn in Victoria are coming to the end of their lives. Image by Diego Fedele/AAP PHOTOS 

She said the transition, which started in 2018, had created certainty for the community as it forged its future after more than 100 years of coal mining.

“My husband works at the power station and he is a transitioning worker. What’s happening in conversations around my dining table at home is happening in in other households around Collie,” she said.

“No one I’ve spoken to is in support of a nuclear reactor being put in Collie … my house will be up for sale if this becomes a reality.”

AMWU state secretary Steve McCartney said Collie workers had been discussing for years what they wanted for the town after coal mining ended, “and I can guarantee you one of the things wasn’t a nuclear power station”.

Mr Dutton has called for a “sensible debate” on nuclear and suggested those living near a coal or gas plant would be receptive to nuclear energy.

“When you look at (those) communities … people are in favour (of nuclear) because they understand the technology,” he said last week.

“They understand that it’s zero emissions, that it is latest generation, it’s the same technology the government signed up to for the nuclear submarines, so it’s safe for our sailors.”

WA Liberals energy spokesman Steve Thomas on Sunday said Mr Dutton’s plan wouldn’t work in the west because the state’s power system was too small to accommodate a large, cost-effective nuclear power plant.

“There might one day be room for a small one when the time is right and the business case stacks up and the community accepts it,” he said.

Peter Dutton
 Federal opposition leader Peter Dutton has called for a sensible debate on nuclear. Image by James Ross/AAP PHOTOS 

The WA Chamber of Minerals and Energy said it had noted the opposition’s plan and that it supported diversifying WA’s energy mix.

Industry needs a low-emission, cost-effective and reliable electricity supply to support the state’s 2030 emissions reduction targets, the advocacy group said.

“In the short-term, we need significant and sustained effort from government to fast-track new energy project approvals and invest in new generation and transmission infrastructure,” chief executive Rebecca Tomkinson said.

“So let’s keep the focus on what needs to be done here and now.”