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 southwest 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?”
Inherent nuclear challenges
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.
Community needs and opportunities
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.”
Preliminary work and planning
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.
The Bellevue, Washington-headquartered company is also planning a meeting to inform potential suppliers — with an emphasis on Wyoming companies — about how they might qualify to provide materials and services for the project, Levesque said.
However, preparing local communities to manage the massive wave of construction activity and its demands on local services mostly falls on the shoulders of residents, community leaders and the state, Natrium Project Director Tara Neider said at the Kemmerer meeting.
Both TerraPower and PacifiCorp will aid in such efforts, company officials said, but they must rely on local and state leadership to best understand how to help. When it comes to financing infrastructure upgrades and other logistics to manage the influx of workers, local officials should turn to the state and federal government, Neider said.
“We want to start those discussions on how we can really help the community because the community is going to help us,” Neider said. “People will need a place to stay and maybe a hospital to go to if they’re sick. So part of it is getting some funding from other sources like the federal government.”
State and federal aid
The federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Build Back Better Act and a menagerie of federal stimulus programs aimed at helping coal communities will provide an opportunity for Kemmerer to not only manage the construction boom, but also to transition to a more sustainable economy, Brian Anderson told WyoFile.
Anderson, executive director of the Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization, said his agency has formed a “Wyoming rapid response team” to help coal communities in counties like Sweetwater, Campbell, Sheridan and Lincoln apply for federal grants.
“We want to make sure those communities have the right attention [from the federal government] to find the right fit,” Anderson said. “Certainly Kemmerer is sitting in a situation that is a little different than others because of TerraPower’s announcement late last year.”
The Natrium project is a good fit for federal stimulus programs which prioritize bolstering cleaner sources of power and helping coal-dependent communities become more resilient, Anderson said.
The U.S. Department of Energy, via the federal infrastructure bill, has committed to finance approximately $2 billion of the estimated $4 billion cost of Natrium’s project so far, according to Levesque. The federal portion may still grow, he said, while Bill Gates and other TerraPower investors will cover the rest.
The fundamental transition from traditional coal extraction and coal-burning to experimental nuclear power — and the uncertainties that come with it — also helps Kemmerer qualify for Build Back Better granting opportunities, according to Anderson.
“We had TerraPower at the White House, at a roundtable, in December,” and it has the attention of President Joe Biden’s administration, Anderson said. “We’re working with the communities to make sure that they can take full advantage of the construction period and build some sustainable impacts to the economy that don’t just have this boom-and-bust construction cycle.”
Exactly how much federal assistance might be available to help Kemmerer and Lincoln County manage the shift is uncertain, Anderson said. But the community ranks high for potential federal stimulus support.
Gov. Mark Gordon intends to use portions of the American Rescue Plan Act and other federal stimulus dollars that are at his spending discretion to aid in such efforts as well, he told Wyoming lawmakers.
Communities preparing for large industrial construction projects sometimes qualify for “impact assistance payments” from the state, too. But it’s unclear how Wyoming’s Industrial Siting program might come into play for Kemmerer and the Natrium project. So far, it appears the facilities under the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission permitting authority may not qualify under the state program, while other Natrium facilities — spent nuclear fuel waste facilities, for example — may trigger state assistance, Levesque said.
Much depends on residents and local leaders when it comes to state and federal assistance, TerraPower’s Neider said.
“It may cause you to have to bend a little bit, in terms of how you see your community now and what might be necessary to recruit and retain [people],” she said.
Now is the time for residents and community leaders to think strategically about how to meet the challenge of both the construction boom and what will be — hopefully — a more sustainable economy after the construction workforce leaves, Kemmerer City Councilman Price said.
“There’s a heck of an opportunity for somebody who is willing to put in some blood, sweat and tears and time,” he said, “and open up something ahead of the game.”
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Kemmerer is in southwest Wyoming. -Ed.