Kemmerer is remote even by Wyoming standards — a 50-mile detour off Interstate 80.
Its height is actually higher than its population, and it attracts tourists who stop to hunt for local fossils. But the best jobs come from different types of fossils – fossil fuels. A coal mine and natural gas wells operate three electricity plants and employ over 450 people. But as fossil fuel use dies out across the United States, Kemmerer sees good times ahead and could become one of the world’s most famous cities, thanks to one of the world’s richest men.
Bill Gates and his 1[ads1]0-year-old energy company TerraPower are planning their first groundbreaking nuclear power plant in Kemmerer.
“I’m curious why you chose Wyoming because Wyoming is actually the largest coal-producing state. So you kind of went 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 full speed. It’s kind of a pro-business atmosphere,” Gates said.
Kemmerer Mayor Bill Thek says his city 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.
“Yes, JC Penney. He created the JCPenney Corporation right out of here,” Thek said.
Now Kemmerer has a 21st century business hero.
“Wyoming is a pretty conservative state. Bill Gates is not a name that I think people will have a lot of praise for in Wyoming because of his stance on phasing out coal and things like that. But now he’s kind of your local hero,” Petersen said.
“There are people who absolutely loathe him. But, you know, this is what it is. He decided to put money into this. Nuclear power, as far as I’m concerned, goes along with his green energy going forward. And we’re not, I’m not opposed to it, and I don’t think most citizens are opposed to something like that,” Thek said.
Solar and wind only work when the weather is right, but nuclear power works 24 hours a day without spewing climate-changing greenhouse gases. It could be operational by 2029, using a next-generation technology called sodium, 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 you earn, you know, per decade is less than the size of a large room. And then the technology for waste management, we’ve had that progress. So that shouldn’t be a limiting factor anymore,” Gates said.
The promise of a new facility 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 to build the facility are already doing site surveys. There will be 300 workers operating the plant when it comes online.
“There’s a lot of big companies coming here. There’s a need for housing. So we jumped right into the market and were kind of first come first served. That’s who’s going to win the battle,” Jackson said.
Today’s construction workers can also gain by getting new jobs, say 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 going to end up generating steam, turning a steam turbine,” Holt said. “You’re going to have a lot of the same equipment that we’re using right now to generate power. So a lot of what we do will be transferable.”
“Does this mean Kemmerer is going to have jobs for 50 years?” Petersen asked.
“Yeah, the thing is, if you have 300 primary jobs, that leaves gas stations, grocery stores, motels, everything else, you know?” Thatcher said.
“Aren’t jobs the real answer here, that what you bring to this community is a chance to keep going after their legacy of coal is over?” Petersen asked Gates.
“Exactly. You know, when that coal plant closes, the ability of this community to keep young people and still be vibrant is threatened,” Gates said.
Small towns survive when young people like these high school students find jobs in their hometown and when parents can earn a living to support a family. Now Kemmerer can do it, says Thek.
“You have to move forward or, well, you stagnate and die. And for me, that’s not an option,” Thek said.