This article is a preliminary framework article and comments/additions are invited.

Bluescope Steel on Port Kembla Harbour, 2006
(Courtesy of the Wollongong City Library and the Illawarra Historical Society Collections – P21020)

The early days of establishment of the Port Kembla steel plant were testing times. The company, Hoskins Iron & Steel (HI&S), was attempting to transfer production in full from Lithgow to Port Kembla, some 150 miles, while at the same time maintaining adequate production to financially underwrite the task. The plant envisaged for Port Kembla included a blast furnace, open hearth steel furnaces, rolling mills and related ancillary plant such as service plant, machine shops and maintenance facilities. Early products were to include structural steel sections and rails. Economic considerations dictated that a substantial amount of the mill plant from Lithgow be re-used in the new location – meaning that the changeover from one site to another was a complicated operation.

Raw Materials

Oxygen injection was introduced also to blast furnaces, again for productivity reasons. Ten years after that first use of oxygen, full basic oxygen steelmaking (BOS)was introduced, in 200/250 tonne vessels, with the last open hearths closing in 1982 after the installation of a third BOS vessel.

The use of ‘OG’ hood/offgas (non-combustion) systems on the BOS furnaces, which collected the BOS offgas unburnt, meant that the flames from the BOS flare stacks, where the gas was ultimately burnt, became a standard feature of the night sky.

 

BOS Vessel During Blow
Photo courtesy Bluescope Steel

 

The ironmaking area also saw substantial process upgrades over the period. In 1957 a sinter plant (to agglomerate ore for blast furnace feed) was commissioned, shortly before the blowing in of the fourth blast furnace in 1959. That for a time held a world production record, but one taken from it by the No 5 blast furnace, blown in in May 1972. The development round which included that furnace (and the introduction of BOS steelmaking) also brought a lime kiln (for BOS use), additional coke oven and byproduct capacity, new sintering capacity, and significant increases in services capacity including steam, oxygen and electric power.

A Modern Steel Plant

The years following that round brought further substantial incremental development, including the introduction of argon-oxygen decarburising (AOD) for stainless steels (1975), vacuum degassing for conventional steels, and steel desulphurisation (1978). A major process shift occurred in 1979 with the introduction of continuous steel casting, in which liquid steel was cast directly into slabs for rolling in strip and plate mills, rather than being cast into ingots as was the original practice. Those ingots then required heating in soaking pit furnaces, and subsequent rolling into slabs.

 Stripping Moulds from ~15t Ingots, No 2 OH
From the collection of Vic Crisafi

 Stripped ingots for transfer to soaking pits
From the collection of Vic Crisafi

 Output from continuous caster being cut to slabs
Photo courtesy of Bluescope Steel

Continuous casting facilitated major energy savings. Further energy saving was achieved in 1981 with the installation of a top gas recovery turbine on the then largest blast furnace, (No. 5BF) which recovered much of the energy needed to compress the blast air for the high pressure furnace. The later 1980s also saw much improvement work, particularly in the extension of sophisticated computer control systems, particularly in the rolling mill area.

 Coiled strip in Strip Mill Coilbox
Photo courtesy of Bluescope Steel

But the decade had also seen a most significant shift in circumstances for the plant in its markets, a shift which was to lead to changes the effects of which have continued to the present day. The ongoing opening of product markets through tariff reductions, and increasing domestic costs, led to major losses in the industry, and a recognition that Australian manufacturing industry generally was poorly placed in terms of international competitiveness. A Steel Industry Plan involving tariff reduction, productivity improvement, bounty payments for certain products, major plant investment, and a degree of market protection was agreed in consultation between the industry firms, industry unions and government. That was to lead to investment in new plant, major plant rationalisation, and very significant reductions in employee numbers. These started in 1982, when full-time employees on site numbered around 20,400 excluding a modest number of full-time onsite contractors (having peaked at some 22,000 two years before).

By the end of the decade, that number was 12,000, with the plant at similar production levels. By 2016, with production levels reduced to around half, that number stood at 3,000 full-time employees, and 1,000 full-time onsite contractors, the latter reflecting a shift towards a model in which operations which were necessary but not ‘core’ to the process of making steel were undertaken by dedicated contractors. The period also saw the closure of a range of production units – some because they were technologically obsolescent (such as open hearth steelmaking) and others as they were no longer seen as consistent with the plant’s production focus (for example tinplate production, and arc furnaces for special steels production).

The result of these shifts, coupled with an improving Australian economy, had a strong influence on profitability. The late 1980s were years of rewarding operation for steel in BHP, with the division overall being the company’s largest profit earner, and Port Kembla leading that, with a return on shareholders’ funds of some 15%. These results had in large part come about through the major increases in productivity.

A New Blast Furnace

In part due to that performance, the next major change took place in 1996 when a new No 6BF (rated at 7,200 tonnes/day) blew in on May 28 – the same day as the No 4 blast furnace shut down after 37 years of operation and 34 million tonnes of iron production. The plant then operated for some years as a two blast furnace, all-BOS, all continuous cast steel plant, in a very modern configuration. In 2009, the plant shifted to single blast furnace operation, during a major ($M372) reline of No 5BF. The furnace returned to operation in August of that year. However difficult market conditions, and reduced world demand, were to lead in 2011 to the closure of the No 6BF – leaving the reconstructed No 5BF as the last remaining blast furnace. Plant capacity reduced from around 5 million tonnes per year to around 2.5 million tonnes per year as the company ceased production for export, and structured capacity to meet domestic demand only.

The Port Kembla steel plant is one which has seen highs and lows in its near 80-year life, and been part of a world steel industry which has changed radically, particularly with shifts in production from developed countries to the developing world, and severe cost pressures on players in the industry. The straitened circumstances of the industry in Australia mirror those of other developed countries – and also the circumstances in which the Port Kembla plant first commenced production. The plant transformed, survived and thrived then – and hopefully will do so again.