KEMMERER, Wyo. - Mayor Bill Thek took office in 2020 with a mission to save this small coal town in southwest Wyoming, where high desert hills are rich in fossils and the fuels derived from them. The local power plant was scheduled to stop burning the carbon-emitting rock that had provided jobs for more than a century. The mine seemed likely to close along with it.
“We’re going to dry up and blow away,” Thek recalled thinking at the time. “I had no idea how the heck I was going to save it.”
Three years later, he and many others in this deep-red corner of the nation’s top coal-producing state have pinned hopes on unlikely saviors: tech mogul Bill Gates and the Biden administration, co-funders of a $4 billion, first-of-its kind nuclear project expected to employ locals and position Kemmerer as a pioneer in a clean-energy movement powered by small reactors.
That is the idea, anyway. The projected start date has already been delayed two years to 2030 because the sole source of the special fuel needed is Russia, and required environmental reviews have pushed back groundbreaking to at least next spring. A similar federally backed project in Idaho folded this month amid spiraling costs. The setbacks have stirred doubts among industry analysts, as well as some Kemmerer residents who stop Thek at the town’s lone grocery to ask whether Gates and the feds can be trusted to deliver.
But in a community idling in the latter half of its latest boom-bust cycle, misgivings have taken a back seat to optimism - and a dawning acceptance that a region built on coal, oil and gas may have little choice but to embrace a new identity. Amid empty downtown storefronts, a chic mercantile is about to open and a new coffee shop churns out lattes. Worn bungalows are selling quickly. A housing development is in the works.
“If you talk to people here, the majority of them, about climate change, they’re going to flip you off,” Thek said. But, he added, “we’ve always been on the cusp of innovation when it comes to these industries. And here we are one more time, only now it’s nuclear.”
In this way, Kemmerer mirrors a broader energy transition underway in Wyoming. The state still produces 40 percent of the nation’s coal, but production has dropped by almost half over 15 years as renewables got cheaper and more customers demanded carbon-free energy. PacifiCorp, the utility that owns Kemmerer’s plant and provides power in six states, is retiring all but two of its 11 Wyoming coal-burning units by 2030. That includes the Kemmerer facility’s three units, all of which will run on natural gas by 2026 and go dark by 2036.
The implications are immense: Half of Wyoming’s revenue comes from fossil fuels, and Gov. Mark Gordon (R) vows to keep extracting them. Yet he also considers climate change a problem worsened by carbon dioxide and touts an “all-of-the-above” strategy centered on carbon capture and sequestration, as well as wind and solar.
His position has drawn ire from the state GOP, which last year slammed what it called an “economic invasion” by Gates and other “subversive enemies of freedom” and this month passed a vote of no confidence in Gordon over his pledge to turn Wyoming “carbon negative.” The legislature, for its part, has passed laws penalizing power companies that seek to shutter plants.
Such protests are gradually giving way to pragmatism, however. “What Wyoming is trying to do is slow the transition as much as possible and in the medium term try to fill that in with opportunities that are available,” said Robert Godby, a University of Wyoming energy economist. Nuclear power is among those opportunities.
In remote Kemmerer, where top attractions are fossil quarries and the original J.C. Penney store, coal’s demise threatened to hit particularly hard. Most Wyoming coal comes from the vast Powder River Basin in the northeast, which is cheaper to mine and largely exported out of state. Most coal from the Kemmerer mine, in contrast, heads to the adjacent power plant. Losing the plant - and possibly the mine - would wipe out nearly 300 jobs, “devastating” a community with a stagnant population, Thek said.
The town already felt down on its luck. It has long surfed the vagaries of an energy economy, welcoming swells of crews that came to build another plant or drill for oil or gas, then left once the work was done. When Exxon constructed a large gas treatment plant in the 1980s, bars lined Triangle Park. There were two groceries, two pharmacies, a hotel and even a barber.
“It was so thriving,” said longtime resident Cindy Miller, 66, who worked for years for a petroleum company and has closely followed the nuclear project. “Year by year, it’s just chipped away.”
A possible windfall came in 2021, when the Gates nuclear start-up TerraPower announced it was considering Kemmerer and three other sites for a demonstration reactor that would employ 250 people and bring 1,600 temporary construction jobs. Thek wrote dozens of letters to local and state officials, asking for their support. City Administrator Brian Muir prepared a power point pitch. He said surveys distributed in water bills found strong support for the project, which would be built not far from the coal plant site.
Kemmerer ultimately was chosen - in part because it is “energy literate,” TerraPower chief executive Chris Levesque said during a visit this month. “They know where electricity comes from. They know what big projects are all about.”
The selection has made the town the envy of many utility workers across the West, where dozens of coal plants are slated to shut in the coming years, said Jerry Bellah of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents employees at Kemmerer’s Naughton Power Plant. He is based in Pueblo, Colo., where local backlash scuttled consideration of a nuclear reactor to replace a facility that’s being decommissioned.
“Most of our people are very pro what’s going on in Kemmerer,” Bellah said. “We think it’s the absolute best solution for the transition of the families, the people, the environment.”
Kemmerer, population 2,400, still feels fairly sleepy these days. The summer sun that sometimes brings tourists passing on their way to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks has given way to snow. On the southwest edge of town, the power plant and mine punctuate the grasslands where deer and elk roam.
Levesque flew from Seattle into the tiny airport here to assure workers - who TerraPower says will be trained for positions at the nuclear plant if they want - that the delays were no cause for alarm. The company is “confident” domestic sources will be able to produce the enriched uranium that the company pledged not to buy from Russia because of the war in Ukraine, he said.
“I was hearing some rumblings in my organization … that it’s not really going to happen,” said Gary Hoogeveen, who heads the PacifiCorp unit that serves Wyoming, Utah and Idaho and accompanied Levesque as he met with the workers. PacifiCorp plans to take ownership of the nuclear facility when it is completed.
The same day, a dozen officials from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission arrived to host community meetings on the reactor’s permitting process. In a cavernous hall, they fielded questions from about 100 people: What is the timeline? Where will nuclear waste be stored? What happens if there’s an earthquake?
Miller was in the audience with her daughter and a friend. Each has attended several meetings related to the reactor and support the project. “If we don’t move ahead with the times, the times are going to leave us behind,” she said after the meeting.
But the three women share concerns about whether Kemmerer can handle an influx of temporary workers - and keep the long-term ones. The water system and wastewater treatment plant serving the town and neighboring Diamondville are struggling. The hospital stopped delivering babies last year. The supermarket gets deliveries only twice a week, less if it’s snowy. And the “man camps” that hosted previous construction crews are remembered by some as hotbeds of crime and rowdiness.
“We want to see the town succeed,” Miller said. “If they can’t house people, and we don’t have the infrastructure, we don’t have a town.”
Others have different reservations. At the town’s senior center, a rancher said he worried newcomers would change the town or terrorists might attack. A retired trucker said her daughter encouraged her to move before she grows “a third boob.” Another retiree, 80-year-old Gene Vickrey, explained his opposition to the reactor by invoking Chernobyl.
“If anything goes haywire, we’re looking at a major catastrophe,” he said.
Thek has tried to allay such fears, pointing to TerraPower’s assertion that its design is safer because it uses sodium as a coolant rather than water. He and Muir have also sought to assure mine workers that they’ll find other customers for the coal. One company has proposed using it to make ammonia; other ideas include makeup and fertilizer, though experts say all could be cost prohibitive.
Those prospects are too uncertain for Trinity Kofoed.
“Every day I go to work and I still wonder if we’re going to be closed tomorrow,” said Kofoed, who’s 43 and a pickup mechanic at the mine. The power plant workers may be trained to work at the nuclear plant, he said, but “what about somebody like me? What if I wanted to get in on it?”
Kofoed talked between games of pool at Grumpies bar, one of the few local businesses open past 6 p.m. on a weekday. A Trump 2024 flag hung on one wall, a “Let’s Go Brandon” sign on another. Behind the bar was owner Teri Picerno, who trusts Gates “about as far as I can throw him” and has seen enough energy projects come and go to feel too excited.
“It’s a wait and see thing,” she said. “Maybe it’s a great project. But I think there’s a lot of hype.”
Yet enthusiasm abounds in the newly formed Fossil Basin Chamber of Commerce, with members like Seth Snyder, 26, who moved to town and bought a carwash and laundromat shortly before the nuclear project was unveiled. Now he’s flipping a brick bungalow and planning more real estate investments as prices soar.
“Almost instantly, you saw this rise in people’s attitudes and morale,” he said.
Nicole Anderson, 30, was motivated to open her own accounting firm downtown. She said most reservations about Gates - long the subject of right-wing conspiracy theories stemming from his support of vaccines - are overshadowed by hope.
“I think people still think of him as a figment of your imagination,” Anderson said. But he’s put Kemmerer “on the map, which none of us ever saw happening.”