Labor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese officially committed Australia to the AUKUS pact with Britain and the United States on March 14.
As part of this deal, Australia has committed to buying three second-hand nuclear submarines from the US, while commissioning another five new British-designed nuclear-powered submarines, to be built in Adelaide.
Port Kembla, in Wollongong, has been shortlisted as the location for an east-coast nuclear submarine base. But residents and community leaders oppose the plan.
Anti-war group Wollongong Against War and Nukes (WAWAN) has been organising against the proposed base since it was announced last year.
“Acquiring nuclear submarines is taking a step towards war,” Port Kembla resident and WAWAN member Alexander Brown said. “These submarines are offensive weapons, not defensive, and they signal an intent to act in a hostile manner beyond the waters surrounding Australia. We totally reject this plan and will fight it every step of the way.
“Climate change is the biggest threat to our community, which has been hit by bushfires and floods. Instead of spending $368 billion on nuclear submarines, the government should be spending it building a renewable energy industry.”
Local Greens councillor Cath Blakey opposes the plan. She said: “Locating a nuclear submarine base in Port Kembla makes the Illawarra a potential target for nuclear attack, all with zero public consultation around the risks to the community.”
The Medical Association for Prevention of War released a safety brief in January that said: “Naval nuclear reactors — like all nuclear reactors — pose potentially serious risks for people and the environment. But unlike other reactors, most information about naval reactors is kept classified, and it can be difficult to say how safe they are, and in what way they are safe.”
Unions and Labor split
The Wollongong region is a Labor stronghold. Its state and federal MPs, Ryan Park, Paul Scully, Stephen Jones and Alison Byrnes have remained silent on the AUKUS submarines before the NSW elections.
By contrast, the Dapto and Port Kembla Labor branches passed motions urging local MPs to publicly oppose the deal.
The South Coast Labor Council (SCLC) and unions emerged as the strongest local voices opposing the AUKUS deal.
SCLC secretary Arthur Rorris pointed out that nuclear submarines are not housed close to large cities anywhere else in the world. “We deserve to be more than a parking lot for nuclear submarines,” he told the Illawarra Mercury on March 16.
A motion passed by the SCLC on February 1, supported by all affiliated unions except for the Australian Workers Union, said: “Nuclear powered and or armed submarines pose an unacceptable risk to the people of the Illawarra and South Coast.
“If a nuclear submarine facility was based in Port Kembla Harbour it would require the acquisition and alienation of a massive part of the harbour and the land around it. Land which is a valuable and vital asset for our general manufacturing, steel, land transport and maritime industries whose epicentre is Port Kembla.”
Renewables or nuclear?
Three weeks before the AUKUS submarine deal was announced, the Port Authority of NSW unveiled a new plan to build a large renewable energy hub at Port Kembla. It envisions the port as key to importing and installing wind turbine equipment for offshore renewable energy projects.
The port was a central reason why the Illawarra was designated as a Renewable Energy Zone last year.
Renew Economy reported last August that the new zoning generated proposals for “44 different projects, 17GW of generation and storage capacity, and a mix of offshore and onshore wind, solar, energy storage, pumped hydro, green hydrogen and green steel. More than $35 billion of the potential investment came from 10 wind projects, including eight located offshore, that totalled 12.9 gigawatts”.
Unions and environmentalists welcomed the news because it would provide a solid future for the industrial town that has relied on coal mining and steel making.
Maritime Union of Australia Southern NSW Branch Secretary Mick Cross said on February 22: “The Illawarra Renewable Energy Zone will deliver new investment in offshore and land-based wind farms, large-scale solar projects, battery storage schemes and pumped hydro, all of which will depend on port infrastructure, port services and port workers.
“It’s a massive opportunity for our sector to grow and deliver long-term, rewarding and fulfilling employment right here in the Illawarra to generations of seafarers and waterside workers.”
Leaked reports that Port Kembla is the frontrunner for an east coast naval base have thrown these plans into turmoil.
Port Authority CEO Marika Calfas said she was kept in the dark by the Department of Defence about plans for a base. She told ABC News on March 13 that “Port Kembla would not be able to accommodate both a nuclear submarine base and continue its current commercial activity”.
For Port Kembla’s future, the government has a clear choice to make: wind or nuclear.
[Melanie Barnes is a Port Kembla resident and member of Wollongong Against War and Nukes, which is organising a rally outside the Illawarra Shoalhaven Defence Industry Conference on April 4 at the Novotel Hotel at 12pm.]