Kemmerer is remote even by Wyoming standards — a 50-mile detour off Interstate 80.
Its elevation is actually higher than its population and it attracts tourists who stop in to hunt for local fossils. But the best jobs come from different kinds of fossils — fossil fuels. A coal mine and natural gas wells power three electricity plants and employ upwards of 450 people. But as fossil fuel use dies out across the U.S., Kemmerer sees good times ahead and could become one of the world’s most famous towns, thanks to one of the world’s wealthiest men.
Bill Gates and his 10-year-old energy company TerraPower are planning their first cutting-edge nuclear power plant in Kemmerer.
“I’m curious why you chose Wyoming because Wyoming is in fact the largest coal-producing state. So you kind of walked into the lion’s den on this one,” correspondent Barry Petersen said.
“Wyoming has a lot of transmission because of the coal plants. And, you know, they’re, they’re willing to let things go at, at full speed. There’s somewhat of a pro-business atmosphere,” Gates said.
Kemmerer Mayor Bill Thek says his town is no stranger to American entrepreneurs. JCPenny opened its first store in Kemmerer in 1902 before going nationwide.
“This is James Cash Penney,” Thek told Petersen.
“Yeah, JC Penney. He created JCPenney Corporation right from here,” Thek said.
Now, Kemmerer has a 21st-century business hero.
“Wyoming is a fairly conservative state. Bill Gates is not a name where I think people would have a lot of praise for in Wyoming ’cause of his stance on phasing out coal and things of that sort. But now he’s kinda your local hero,” Petersen said.
“There are people who absolutely abhor him. But, you know, this is what it is. He decided to put money into this. The nuclear, as far as I’m concerned, goes along with his green energy moving forward. And we’re not, I’m not opposed to that, and I don’t think most of the citizens are opposed to something like that,” Thek said.
Solar and wind only work when the weather is right, but nuclear works 24 hours a day without spewing out climate-changing greenhouse gasses. It could be in operation by 2029, using a next-generation technology called natrium, which is the Latin name for sodium. Sodium-cooled reactors are three times more efficient than traditional water-cooled reactors, which means significantly less nuclear waste.
“And so the amount that you’re making, you know, per decade is less than the size of a big room. And so the technology for waste disposal we’ve had that advance. So that shouldn’t be a limiting factor anymore,” Gates said.
The promise of a new plant has bulldozers at work as out-of-town developers like David Jackson think they’re building into a boom. The first of 2,500 workers who will construct the plant are already doing site surveys. There will be 300 workers running the plant once it comes online.
“There’s a lot of big companies coming here. There’s a need for the housing. So we jumped right into the market and was kind of first come. That’s who’s gonna win the game,” Jackson said.
Today’s plant workers may also win by getting new jobs, says Roger Holt, a manager at the coal plant, and Mark Thatcher, a retired coal miner.
“You know, this is a new design nuclear reactor but it’s still is going to end up generating steam, turning a steam turbine,” Holt said. “You’re gonna have a lot of the same equipment that we use right now to generate power. So, a lot of what we do will be transferable.”
“Does this mean Kemmerer’s going to have jobs for 50 years?” Petersen asked.
“Yeah, the thing is, if you got 300 primary jobs, it allows gas stations, grocery stores, motels, everything else to be, ya know?” Thatcher said.
“Isn’t jobs the real answer here, that what you’re bringing to this community is a chance to continue going on after their legacy of coal is over?” Petersen asked Gates.
“Exactly. You know, when that coal plant is shutting down, the ability of this community to keep young people and still be vibrant is under threat,” Gates said.
Small towns survive when young people like these middle schoolers find hometown jobs and when parents can make a living to support a family. Now, Kemmerer can do that, says Thek.
“You have to move forward, or yeah, you stagnate and you die. And to me, that’s not an option,” Thek said.