Part 1: A Struggling Coal Town Looks to a Nuclear Future

Bill Gates-backed TerraPower to build state’s first nuclear power plant

The Naughton Power Plant, located just outside of Kemmerer, will shut down in 2028. TerraPower's nuclear power plant, with its Natrium reactor, is expected to replace the lost coal jobs and employ a workforce of 250. (Wyoming Truth photo by Samuel Gilbert)

By Samuel Gilbert

Special to the Wyoming Truth

On Saturday, the Wyoming Truth published the part one of a story about Kemmerer, future home of TerraPower’s Natrium reactor. Part two follows below.

KEMMERER, Wyo.—Wyoming’s retiring coal assets and political support for new nuclear power made the state an attractive option for the site of TerraPower’s Natrium reactor.  Kemmerer beat out Gillette, Glenrock and Rock Springs for the Natrium plant, which is set to open in 2028.  Mayor William (Bill) Thek and others said TerraPower chose Kemmerer due to the community’s ardent approval of the project.

The Fossil County Frontier Museum in Kemmerer showcases artifacts from the town’s coal mining glory days, including this vintage miner’s helmet. (Wyoming Truth photo by Samuel Gilbert)

A November 2021 survey attached to the town’s monthly water bill asked residents about the prospect of bringing nuclear energy to Kemmerer.  There was “overwhelming support,” said city administrator Brian Muir, with 90% of respondents agreeing that the project would benefit the county economically.  More than three-quarters of residents “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that nuclear power was safe.  

“You can’t be afraid of everything,” said Mark Thatcher, the retired electrician. “If you’re afraid of your car breaking down, then don’t drive.”

Kemmerer also received public support from the Wyoming cities of Cokeville, Evanston, Opal and Diamondville, as well as Lincoln and Uinta counties. And three Republican state lawmakers, Rep. Scott Heiner, Sen. Wendy Schuler and Sen. Fred Baldwin, wrote letters in support of locating the Natrium reactor in Kemmerer, which Thek presented to TerraPower as evidence of public backing.

During a PowerPoint presentation, Muir told TerraPower and Rocky Mountain Power executives, “We want you here, and we need you here.” Rocky Mountain Power is a division of PacifiCorp, the power company that will add the Natrium reactor to its fleet upon completion.

Support for new nuclear energy exists not only in Kemmerer but throughout much of Wyoming. Last spring, Wyoming passed a law that allows the temporary storage of nuclear waste in the state and provides tax breaks for the nuclear industry. (There is no permanent repository for nuclear waste in the U.S.)

Across the country, enthusiasm for nuclear power often falls along party lines. In 2022, Pew Research found that Republicans are more open to the prospect of expanding nuclear power plants than Democrats. Kemmerer is the county seat of Lincoln county, where 82.6% of voters cast ballots for former President Trump in 2020. 

These politics are visible around town. Teri Picerno’s customers at Grumpies Bar have plastered the walls with Trump campaign signs. When asked whether she thought Gates, a Democrat, would ever stop in Grumpies, she responded, “I hope not.”

Pictured above is a photo of the mining town of Diamondville, which is Kemmerer’s sister town. (Wyoming Truth photo by Samuel Gilbert)

A changing town

Despite the widespread support for nuclear power in Kemmerer, some worry about the Natrium plant’s impact on the town, which already is experiencing a spike in real estate prices and an influx of new residents.

As director of the Frontier Museum, Picerno, a New York City native, spends many days surrounded by Kemmerer’s past.  Small towns like Kemmerer, she pointed out, are often resistant to the changes that accompany business development. 

“I think people are totally supportive of anything that will save the town,” said Picerno, standing in the bright sunlit chapel of the old Mormon church that now serves as a community space.  A nearby map displayed dozens of now-defunct coal mines scattered across southeastern Wyoming. But “people are not totally supportive of a bunch of new people moving in,” she added. 

Change in Kemmerer is already afoot. Last year, 22 homes were purchased by two individuals who intend “to flip” them, said Picerno.  She equates the uptick in interest in Kemmerer real estate to news of the reactor coming to town.  

“People see an opportunity,” said Picerno. “I get it.” 

The locally owned Fossil Butte Motel recently sold to a California vacation rental company and now has contactless entry and nobody on site.  “It’s that personal connection that makes small-town America,” Picerno said.  “We are losing that connection.”   

Muir, the city administrator, acknowledged a noticeable increase in building permits for house repairs and remodeling projects in the past year and heightened real estate prices after TerraPower announced its plans to build the Natrium reactor in Kemmerer.  

Thek and other residents have even received unsolicited letters from people interested in buying their properties.

A few years back, Muir and his wife purchased a 2,600-square-foot house in Kemmerer for $88,000. They invested $20,000 and “a lot of sweat equity” in renovations, he said, noting they could probably sell it for $250,000 right now.

New businesses also have moved in, including the hip Fossil Fuel Coffee Company, a mortgage lender and a business that rents construction-related equipment. TriSite, a company that converts coal to agricultural products, will break ground and begin hiring employees next spring, according to Muir.  

Many Kemmerer residents hope that the jobs and associated revenue stemming from the reactor can help revive the town and halt the exodus of young people seeking better opportunities.

“Once my son-in-law and daughter find a house in Billings, we won’t have any of our six kids living in town,” Picerno said.

Picerno supports the Natrium reactor, which will provide a similar number of jobs as those lost from the coal power plant closure in 2028. But she does not view it as an economic panacea.

Still, there is a need for economic diversification that is not dependent on one, albeit new, economy, she explained. An expansion of retail outlets would be a good start, residents agreed, as well as an influx of other industries. 

Thek is optimistic the Natrium reactor will provide a stable future for the town. “This [the reactor] will be around long after I am gone,” he said. “I’m hoping my grandkids and great-grandkids will benefit from it.”

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