Kemmerer’s locals, leaders eye transition to nuclear-power boom town

The residents and leaders of Kemmerer, population 2,800, are preparing for the construction of a next-generation nuclear power plant near their community. A coal-fired plant near Kemmerer has been selected as the site for the Natrium reactor demonstration plant. (Photo by Dustin Bleizeffer, WyoFile.com)

KEMMERER — A relic of 1950s-era motor lodges, the Antler Motel in the heart of Kemmerer rarely has to light its “no vacancy” sign, though customer traffic is steady during the summer tourist season and holidays, manager Rose Lain said.

One major boon for the Antler, and other hotels in town, are workers tapped for maintenance and occasional construction jobs related to the Naughton coal-fired power plant, the Kemmerer coal mine and a nearby natural gas processing plant. Those fossil-fuel facilities have driven the pulse of the local economy for decades, providing good-paying jobs for the rural shift-work town. 

But in 2019 the power plant’s owner, PacifiCorp, switched one of the three coal-burning units to natural gas and scheduled all three units to be permanently closed by 2028. That threatened the livelihoods for some 126 workers at the power plant, another 300 workers at the Kemmerer mine that supplies the Naughton plant and signaled a major shift for the economic bedrock of Kemmerer itself. The news spelled a grim picture for Kemmerer’s future in an era when responses to human-caused climate change are driving utilities away from coal and toward cleaner sources of energy.

“Everyone’s been trying to sell their homes, and they still move away but their homes are sitting there vacant,” Lain said.

In November, however, Kemmerer’s prospects morphed overnight from ghost town to boom town when the Bill Gates-backed TerraPower announced it selected the southeast Wyoming town — and PacifiCorp’s Naughton plant — as the location for its proposed $4 billion Natrium nuclear power plant. 

If successful, the liquid-sodium-cooled Natrium reactor demonstration plant will provide enough jobs to employ all of Naughton’s employees, and then some, when it goes online in 2028, according to TerraPower officials.

The future of PacifiCorp’s Kemmerer coal mine, however, remains less certain. Local officials pin their hopes for sustaining the mine on coal carbon capture and coal-to-products technologies that so far have not proven commercially viable at scale.

Lain and many Kemmerer residents — as well as residents of the adjacent Diamondville and the unincorporated enclave Frontier — are excited for a prosperous future based on the promise of nuclear energy. The Antler Motel is making renovations and is eager to serve the construction workforce of 2,000, Lain said.

Yet many questions remain about how this rural community of 2,800 will nearly double in population — temporarily — to accommodate the construction scheduled to begin in 2024. Even now, it’s difficult for businesses to find enough help to fill service jobs in town, Lain said. It’s unclear where the capital will come from to refurbish vacant homes, hotels and RV parks — all while the cost of housing is skyrocketing here just as it is across the West.

“It could be amazing, you know, for our business and for all the businesses around town — as long as we can accommodate all the workers,” Lain said. But, “is it going to be super chaotic? How are we going to meet their needs?”

Despite assurances from TerraPower and among proponents in Wyoming, as well as financial backing from the federal government and Gates, the experimental nuclear project faces considerable odds and opposition.

Federal funding from the U.S. Department of Energy is contingent upon the plant coming online in 2028. Such a seven-year turnaround from permit application to power on the grid would be an unprecedented feat for an experimental power project under the authority of the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The Natrium project is also sure to face wide-ranging opposition for the human health, environmental and security risks inherent in any nuclear endeavor. Radioactive fuels for the Kemmerer plant will be refined in South Carolina and shipped to western Wyoming, according to plans, raising transportation concerns, for example. Spent fuels and other radioactive wastes will also need to be stored onsite, likely for extremely long stretches.

When TerraPower officials fielded questions during a Jan. 19 public meeting in Kemmerer however, those concerns were secondary to the prospect of new jobs and questions about how Kemmerer and other Lincoln County communities might manage the impacts of the construction project. 

Infrastructure, including the town’s sewer and water systems, is aging and in need of upgrades beyond current budgets, according to one town official. 

The budget for law enforcement is already stretched while public safety officials struggle to meet current needs, Lincoln County Sheriff Shane Johnson told TerraPower and PacifiCorp officials last week.

“We have the budget that we have right now, not the budget for what’s anticipated,” Johnson said. “One of the concerns for law enforcement is there’s a ramp-up period to get fully staffed and be prepared for [an increase in] population. It takes six months to a year to get somebody hired and trained and on the job.”

Several years ago, Kemmerer went from two grocery stores to one. Housing prices were already rising, residents told WyoFile, before TerraPower announced Kemmerer as the future location for what it hopes is the first of many Natrium nuclear power reactors in Wyoming and across the country. 

The owner of one local business backed out of a pending sale after the TerraPower announcement, then more than doubled the asking price based on the prospects of the Natrium project, according to Kemmerer City Councilman Bill Price.

“So that’s a potential negative,” Price said while having breakfast at Kemmerer’s Place On Pine diner. “It’s going to mean an increase in police protection. It’s going to mean an increase in housing [demand] and traffic. Is that necessarily bad stuff? No.”

Kemmerer has weathered a series of booms and busts throughout its history, including the construction of the Naughton power plant in the 1960s, ExxonMobil’s Shute Creek gas plant in the mid-1980s and several gas- and oilfield cycles. But that doesn’t mean Kemmerer and nearby Lincoln County communities are impervious to the stresses of ups and downs, Price said.

Until TerraPower selected Kemmerer for the Natrium nuclear power reactor in November, the community was bracing for a life-altering transition away from coal to … no one knew for certain, Price said. Residents haven’t had much time to shift from that mindset to potential boom times, and the community is still processing information to understand the challenges and opportunities.

“We are very, very grateful that Kemmerer was chosen,” Price said. “It’s got a lot of pluses, and it’s got a lot of minuses. But I think we are smart and will do it right.”

For now, TerraPower and PacifiCorp — which will take ownership of the nuclear power plant once in operation — are busy establishing job training and retraining plans with the state, University of Wyoming and local community colleges, according to company officials. TerraPower is also assembling project engineers — currently a team of 300 that will grow to 800, according to the company — as it begins the years-long task of gaining approvals from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Drilling crews were busy collecting soil core samples at the future Natrium nuclear power site just outside Kemmerer last week as NRC staff monitored the activities onsite, TerraPower CEO Chris Levesque told a crowd of about 80 people during the recent public meeting in Kemmerer.

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