KEMMERER — Samantha Dunn has seen the ups and downs of the energy industry in Kemmerer.
She’s among residents who feel skeptical that a proposed $4 billion nuclear plant is going to change the game for the small mountain town’s economy.
“I’ve lived here on and off my entire life,” Dunn told Cowboy State Daily. “I’ve seen the booms, and I’ve seen the downfall. Once we have that, the downfall, it’s really hard on the town. So that’s what I’m worried about, because everyone thinks a ton of jobs are going to come from (the nuclear plant) but they only need 100 people to run (that).”
Those 100 jobs are 300 less than what the power plant employs now, Dunn points out, and Rocky Mountain Power has already announced it plans to stop burning coal in Kemmerer by 2025.
She wonders if anything will make up for that net loss in jobs, and whether the birth of a nuclear plant will ultimately be just another disappointment in a community that’s seen many.
Kemmerer sits snug as a bug in a rug, right up against Diamondville, in the midst of high desert and the beautiful Rocky Mountains.
Diamondville and Kemmerer lie so close together, their streets run into each other. They share a Chamber of Commerce Facebook page, as well as promotional materials for developers.
The total population of both towns combined is about 3,000 people, though the region as a whole is advertised as having a labor force of 13,532 people.
Founded On Energy
Kemmerer has been no stranger to the energy industry. It was founded on it. John C. Fremont discovered coal there during his 1843 expedition, and Union Pacific Coal Company opened the first underground mine there in 1881, after the Oregon Short Line Railroad completed its track from Granger to Oregon.
Patrick J. Quealy founded Kemmerer in 1897, naming it after Pennsylvania coal magnate Mahlon S. Kemmerer, who was his financial backer.
By 1950, Kemmerer was once home to the world’s largest open pit coal mine. It is still producing 5 million tons of coal annually, though the title of world’s largest open pit coal mine now belongs to the North Antelope Rochelle Mine south of Gillette in Campbell County.
Dunn isn’t wrong that there are many challenges ahead of Kemmerer as it seeks to prepare for the construction of the 345 Megawatt nuclear power plant that Bill Gates’ TerraPower has announced it will be siting in Kemmerer. The site will be near one of the Rocky Mountain Power Plants that’s scheduled to close.
Megawatts measure the rate at which electricity is produced. It should don’t be confused with megawatt hours, which describes electricity consumption. One megawatt, abbreviated MW, is equal to 1 million watts.
There have been questions lately about how to supply the grade of uranium the plant needs to operate since the Russian invasion of Ukraine cut off the supply of High-Assay Low-Enriched Uranium or HALEU that the plant will need.
There are American companies that could supply such materials — but they want to see proof of concept before they make a major investment.
The U.S. Department of Energy has said its national laboratories are working on demonstrations to help provide that proof, but the challenges don’t end there.
Kemmerer itself is facing multiple challenges ahead, something Kemmerer City Administrator Brian Muir is all too aware of.
He’s optimistic there’s a path forward
“We are actually hoping for another (nuclear plant) to come here,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “It’s possible we could get a second plant.”
New Coal Customer
But that’s not the only thing that’s been falling into place lately that could help the city survive.
“There are three coal-fired power plants in the community,” Muir said. “Naught One, Two and Three. Number Three has already been converted to natural gas. And Naught One and Two, which are scheduled to shut down in 2025, Rocky Mountain Power is going to be converting those to natural gas. They’ll be operational, I think, until 2036.”
That means continued jobs at the power plant, Muir said, which buys time for the town to sustain its economy as other opportunities come online.
As for the coal mine, there are also suitors looking at a new future for it.
“The coal mine is doing pretty good still and still has contracts,” Muir said.
There’s also two companies, Glenrock Energy and Kanata, exploring a partnership to convert coal into ammonia.
“That has the potential to save all of our coal mining jobs, but also another 100 jobs for the plant that they’re creating,” Muir said. “A lot of companies in Japan, they’re now using ammonia at their coal mine operations plants. So they’re changing the fuel to ammonia, which is carbon neutral.”
Even if that project were to wash out — and Muir stressed that so far that is moving along well — he believes there would still be a modest net gain with jobs.
“We would still have the Trona mines,” he said. “If you do the math, I mean, if we don’t get the coal to ammonia conversion, we could have a very modest gain, a modest net gain with jobs. It will be different kinds of jobs, that pay really well, that require technical training. A lot of these coal miners can be trained, if they want to be, and to learn the new technologies working with Western Wyoming Community College.”
The event center in Kemmerer, in fact, is looking at expansion so it can be used to train workers for the nuclear facility, Muir said.
“We have a lot of (exceptional community buildings) because if you’re an energy community, sometimes you get a little help from these energy companies. They’ll build these things,” he said.
The event center was one of several key selling points that Muir believes helped persuade TerraPower to locate one of its new nuclear plants in Kemmerer.
Optimists Are Already Placing Big Bets on Kemmerer
Paul Ulrich is not among area residents who are skeptical of the nuclear plant. What he sees ahead is renewal and hope. Ulrich owns one of the area’s first fossil digging sites near Kemmerer.
“What I’ve seen over the last couple of years is a sense of optimism and excitement,” he said. “For what seems to be the probability of, you know, this next generation nuclear plant being located in Kemmerer.”
He’s already seen new companies placing their bets on Kemmerer, and that’s injected new vitality into its downtown.
Muir, too, has seen some large bets being placed on Kemmerer, and it’s keeping him optimistic.
“The main impact I’ve seen so far is that housing is moving,” he said. “People are selling and buying properties, and the property values are going up.”
Some individuals have also already begun creating new temporary housing solutions — and those units are already filling up fast.
“There are like nine tiny homes in an RV park,” Muir said. “That guy invested money to pave some new roads, put in some better hookups, and then brought in nine tiny homes to see how that’s going to go.”
Many of those are already rented by people in the current workforce, even though the nuclear plant has yet to begin any type of construction. That suggests developers are betting the nuclear plant will have economic ripple effects lasting well beyond the nuclear plant’s initial construction boom, which is expected to bring in a couple thousand workers.
A new housing project is planned for next spring, Muir added, with about 140 new units for a first phase.
“There’s also a piece of property that’s been zoned from agricultural to commercial highway over by the south of town for a potential new truck stop and other businesses to appeal to travelers,” Muir said. “And then in another part of that same area, there’s some agricultural being converted to multifamily (housing), in anticipation of the temporary workforce. There’s probably going to be 1,500 to 1,800 workers at peak coming to Kemmerer.”
Kemmerer is already working on its infrastructure, as far as water and wastewater capacity.
“The downtown revitalization process has begun,” Muir said, “and I think people have enough confidence I think in what’s coming that people are investing. I’m seeing an increase in fence permits, driveway permits, building permits for remodeling and that kind of thing. We’re not this big, huge city, but I think some steady growth has already begun, and I think more is to come.”
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.