TerraPower has been shopping around in Kemmerer for office space, but it’s finding out what a lot of businesses interested in the small southwestern town in Wyoming are discovering of late — the town’s available real estate is filling up fast.
Finding a new headquarters can be a challenge — even for the company that helped create all that economic heat in the first place by announcing it had selected the frontier coal town for the first of its novel nuclear plants.
TerraPower made the announcement it was building the plant, estimated to cost $4 billion, in 2021. That touched off something of an economic firestorm for the community of about 2,500 people.
Since the announcement, City Administrator Brian Muir said he’s been fielding lots of inquiries from prospective developers, and he’s seeing Main Street, as well as the city’s downtown triangle of streets that serves as a nexus for businesses, fill up with hopeful new businesses.
There was the recent restoration, for example, of the Opera House, which opened a lunch counter and mercantile store earlier this year. There’s also the recently opened Fossil Fuel coffee shop.
Up the street from that, a new office complex opened with a bakery in it, and there’s an office complex coming to Pine Street that will include retail in a second phase.
Handicap ramps are also coming to the downtown area to improve accessibility, along with other improvements the city is planning.
About The Natrium Plant
The Natrium nuclear plant proposed for the town is a novel concept that could be a game-changer for nuclear power.
The Natrium plant will use liquid sodium as a cooling agent instead of water. Sodium has several safety advantages over water. A higher boiling point means it can soak up more heat than water with less risk of explosion.
The system also doesn’t need outside energy to function, eliminating a vulnerability that proved a weakness in the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown, where a tsunami killed the diesel generators running its backup cooling system.
The molten salt can even hold onto that heat energy for a while, a little like a battery. That means the plant can temporarily boost its capacity from the planned 345 megawatts to 500 megawatts. The boost would last about five hours.
Natrium plants also produce less waste than conventional nuclear plants, reducing the amount of problematic radioactive materials.
If the Kemmerer plant goes well, TerraPower has said previously it may build other nuclear plants in Wyoming. A particular focus for the company has been building these plants in communities where there’s been an announced coal plant closure.
Rocky Mountain Power had announced it will close Kemmerer’s coal-fired generation plant in 2030.
More Than Just TerraPower Happening
The TerraPower project isn’t the only thing bringing workers into Kemmerer.
Among additional projects that are happening alongside the lead-up to Terra Power’s project is the continued expansion of Exxon Mobile’s carbon capture facility at its Shute Creek Treating Facility in La Barge Wyoming.
Some of those workers have been staying in Kemmerer, Muir said.
“I don’t know how much longer they’re going to take before they’re done,” Muir said. “At one point, we forecasted more than 100 workers here in Canada at the peak, I just don’t know where their peak is.”
That could be done this year, about the same time TerraPower is slated to bring in about 150 workers to start earth work and moving for a Natrium test facility.
After that, Muir has been told 500 more workers will be coming in 2025.
It helps that everything is happening in waves, rather than all of a sudden Kemmerer is adding over 1,000 workers at once, he added.
“I know there’s been some delays on permitting,” Muir said. “That permitting is going forward, but what’s being done this summer is nothing on (the main plant). It’s actually going to be on the testing facility.”
That early spring startup is why TerraPower is now shopping around for office space, Muir added.
“They need to have some boots on the ground here,” he said.
Helping More Than Hurting
The rapid influx of new retail shops and services that Kemmerer is seeing could be something of a double-edged sword.
It could test some city services, but if managed well could also help the city attract the infrastructure and services it will need to get its economic ducks in a row.
Kemmerer is expecting an onslaught of 1,200 to 1,600 workers at peak construction of the nuclear plant for TerraPower alone — a significant challenge.
Among the biggest demands in an array of needs will be housing for all of those workers. The city prefers to avoid man camps if it can, which have gotten a bad reputation in other boom towns.
Fortunately, everything isn’t going to be happening all at once, Muir told Cowboy State Daily.
The workers are going to be coming in waves, and that’s going to buy some time for developers to build out housing projects — two of which are already on drawing boards.
Not one, but two developers have recently stepped up announcing major housing projects in Kemmerer, which Muir believes will, between them, take care of any housing issues the city might have faced.
One project, which he referred to as the Gateway PUD, expects to build out 279 new units over three phases. The first phase includes 144 units, 88 of which will be townhomes, and the rest single-family residential.
That one has a preliminary plat approval, which is just one step removed from the development agreement and final plat approval.
More Exciting Yet
The other project, which Muir is particularly enthusiastic about, is an even larger, mixed-use development.
Not only is it looking to build housing — a lot of housing —it brings online a truck stop, a hotel, a grocery store and retail outlets.
Housing-wise, the plan calls for up to 199 single-family dwellings, 144 townhomes and 197 multi-family units.
Given that workers will often go in together on housing with three to five people in one dwelling, and the fact that Kemmerer already has about 651 housing units between hotels, motels, single- and multi-family dwellings, Muir believes these two developments will help top off the town’s housing needs, especially given that many existing landowners are also taking concurrent steps to help house workers.
Those efforts include things like nine new tiny-house cabins here and new RV hookups there, all of which can later be used to house tourists.
“So, I would say it all depends on how fast they can build these things,” Muir said. “Obviously, this summer, infrastructure is the plan.”
More Than Just Nuclear
But Kemmerer’s community and civic leaders have their eyes on more than just accommodating a temporary influx of construction workers.
What they’re really hoping to do is leverage this temporary construction boom into a more permanent expansion.
Muir said Kemmerer is working with a couple of companies right now to transition a nearby coal mine to a completely new industry, one that would produce carbon-free ammonia and other products like fertilizer and skin care items from the coal.
If that happens, they would not only get the 100 to 150 jobs the TerraPower nuclear plant and test facility would add, but keep all of the coal mine jobs, too.
“That’s the boon we need to help avoid a bust,” Muir told Cowboy State Daily. “Long-term, to have a really good thing, we need to keep the coal going.”
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.