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A new chapter in Kemmerer? TerraPower breaks ground

A man speaks to a crowd, with a tractor and Wyoming state flag behind him.
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
Multi-billionaire Bill Gates speaks to a crowd at his nuclear company’s groundbreaking near Kemmerer.

Almost three years ago, an unlikely relationship formed between the declining coal town of Kemmerer and one of the richest people in the world: Bill Gates. That’s because his nuclear company, TerraPower, announced it’d chosen Kemmerer for a “first of its kind” power plant.

It promised to pump life back into the economy. But unless you’re deeply embedded in the energy world, it mostly just felt like a lot of talk to residents – until this month, when the project broke ground.

“Kemmerer’s been good for us”

Mark Thatcher opened the door of his gray stucco home in Kemmerer in early June. Thatcher has kind eyes, a friendly smile.

“I had a granddaughter just graduate,” he said. “Can I brag on this?”

A man stands inside a house in front of framed photos of kids.
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
Mark Thatcher stands by his wall celebrating his grandkids and their accolades. He raised his family in Kemmerer, where he worked as an electrician in the coal mine since the ‘80s.

Photos of 21 grandkids cover his living room wall.

“I got to meet the class president, the valedictorian, athlete of the year – all in one pretty little granddaughter,” he beamed. “So you know what I mean? Kemmerer’s been good for us.”

Thatcher built his American dream in this coal town. He worked as an electrician in the mine, bought a house, raised a family and recently retired. He wants his grandkids to have similar opportunities.

“If Kemmerer’s dried up, it's not an opportunity,” he said.

Kemmerer and coal go hand in hand. So for a while, the town emptied out, mirroring coal’s 16-year decline.

“I would say six, seven years ago, there were over 60 empty homes here,” Thatcher recalled.

But now, there are 12 homes for sale. Thatcher said the community of about 2,500 people is starting to feel more like when he moved here. New families are moving in. There are new businesses and jobs. He thinks it’s thanks to several new energy projects in the area, including nuclear.

A white tent and black bus on a plot of leveled dirt.
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
The white tent that held about 300 energy stakeholders in the desert outside of Kemmerer.

Bill Gates and his shovel

Six miles south of town, a giant white event tent was plopped down in the sagebrush desert. It’s the site of TerraPower’s future nuclear plant. And on this early June day, they’re getting ready to break ground.

Around 300 local and national energy stakeholders rubbed elbows inside the tent. A mix of rock and folksy country music played in the background.

Amongst the group was Brian Muir, Kemmerer’s city administrator. He was visibly happy, wearing a green TerraPower lanyard.

“Joy is the word that I feel right now after a lot of uncertainty in getting here,” he said.

A man in a button up shirt in front of a white tent.
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
Kemmerer City Administrator Brian Muir was tasked five years ago with helping the town through the energy transition.

Muir was hired in 2019. His job? Find a way for Kemmerer to survive.

That’s because the Naughton coal plant, which sits a few miles across the highway from the nuclear project, is permanently closing by 2036. Even more, it’s fully switching to natural gas in two years. That timeline puts a question mark on the future of the Kemmerer coal mine that serves it.

Muir’s hope is for some of the mine’s and eventually power plant’s workers to be absorbed by the future nuclear power plant, which promises 250 long term jobs and 1,600 temporary construction jobs.

“I think the eyes of the world are upon us to see how soon we can get this done,” Muir said.

TerraPower’s work in Kemmerer is a pilot project. Conventional nuclear power plants are massive and require a lot of water. TerraPower figured out an alternative with their technology dubbed Natrium. This will make the plants smaller, safer, more climate friendly and cheaper – in theory.

“It's working really well inside the computer,” Bill Gates told the crowd.

A mockup of the Terrapower nuclear plant layout.
A computer design of the future TerraPower Natrium nuclear power plant.

The multibillionaire and founder of TerraPower looked on brand, with a blue sweater and black rimmed glasses. He motioned to the leveled dirt and tractor adorned with a Wyoming state flag behind him.

“Little bit harder to make it work out there,” he lightly chuckled. “But that's what we're starting on, starting today.”

He and the U.S. Department of Energy are the two main backers of the $4 billion project. Gates’ vision is for these Natrium plants to be the future of America’s growing energy demands – specifically in former coal towns.

TerraPower said the plants will tap into existing coal power plant infrastructure and workforce.

“And you're the pioneers that are going to make that happen,” he said to the eager crowd.

A man in a blue sweater holding a shiny shovel in front of a tractor.
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
Bill Gates holding the shovel he used to break ground on the project.

And with that, Gates, Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon and several other key players grabbed their shovels and dug in.

“Liberal outsiders”

But not everyone felt the camaraderie. Across the highway were about 10 trucks flying presidential candidate Donald Trump-themed flags. Some of the vehicle windows were painted with words that were hard to read, but alluded to conspiracy theories about Gates.

A dozen or so people stood around a life-size cardboard cutout of Trump. Ashton Anderson from nearby Evanston broke away to explain.

“We just don't like the idea of liberals coming into our state. It's that simple,” Anderson said, as he grasped a Trump flag that read, “Take America Back.”

Anderson said their “Trump train” was about “liberal Bill Gates” and “traitor Gordon,” who they feel isn’t far-right enough in his politics. It was less about the actual nuclear project.

A man holds a Trump flag in front of a truck with more Trump flags.
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
Ashton Anderson holds his Trump flag at the protest across from the nuclear groundbreaking.

“I don't know too much about the nuclear stuff. I just don't – I'm just being honest with you,” Anderson said as trucks passing by honked in support.

And while many agree Gates’ politics don’t align with Wyoming, Kemmerer’s downtown is bustling – even just compared to a year ago.

A downtown facelift 

In the past year, two bakeries, a law office and a home goods boutique recently opened up downtown.

Most businesses say they’re doing well, like Tynsky’s Fossils.

Kodi Tynsky is using a small power tool on a fossil, which Kemmerer is also known for.

“So most of these fish are covered with rock, so we have to uncover it,” she said.

She sells them in her downtown shop. Four years ago, she didn’t know if she could keep the doors open. The town was slow, partly because of COVID.

A woman stands in front of a giant turtle fossil in a fossil shop.
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
Kodi Tynsky stands in front of giant turtle fossil in her shop. Kemmerer is also known for its fossils.

“That was our first year of business so it was very scary,” Tynsky said. “But we made it through it.”

Business is good now. Several customers came in just within a few minutes. Tynsky added that she thinks it’ll only get better with the nuclear project.

“I think it'll bring in new people, hopefully, so Kemmerer doesn’t become a ghost town again,” she said.

Looking forward 

Construction on the nuclear project is expected to take six years. This summer, the liquid sodium testing facility will be built by Gillette-based Earth Work Solutions. This facility is a key part of the TerraPower technology that offers an alternative to traditional nuclear plants.

The goal is to open by 2030. TerraPower’s Natrium plant will have to prove it can deliver on its promises. Then, public utility Rocky Mountain Power, a branch of Warren Buffet’s PacifiCorp, will take over the plant. The utility is also considering taking on five more in the region.

A small downtown with several buildings, cars and trees on a blue sky day.
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
Downtown Kemmerer’s historic Opera House building has new owners, featuring a bakery and a home goods boutique-type store.

There are still several large hurdles between now and then, including infrastructure for 1,600 temporary workers, a federal permit for the nuclear part of construction and a federal operating license.

But one of the biggest hurdles is fuel. TerraPower and the federal government are trying to secure a domestic source of fuel, possibly in Ohio. Compared to traditional nuclear plants, the Natrium design requires a much more highly enriched uranium. Right now, it’s only made in Russia. That caused a two-year delay for the project when Russia invaded Ukraine.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.