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A White House push to help Wyoming town go nuclear is cautiously embraced

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

What happens to places that are still tied to the old fossil fuel economy? That's a question for Wyoming. It's the nation's biggest coal producer, but its coal power plants are shutting down. So now the Biden administration has a plan to help Wyoming go nuclear. NPR's Kirk Siegler takes a look.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: In its heyday, Kemmerer, Wyo., had two dozen coal mines, drawing thousands to this frontier prairie town in search of good-paying jobs. Savvy entrepreneurs also came for the boom. The most famous is memorialized today in Kemmerer's sleepy town square - a huge statue of James Cash Penney. Kemmerer is home of the original JCPenney's (ph) department store. It's still in business, but it was sold off recently during a bankruptcy, and its future here is in limbo, which is emblematic more broadly of Kemmerer, a town built by coal.

TERI PICERNO: It's always been the favorite, the baby. Coal was never going to go away, so nobody was really looking at what if.

SIEGLER: Over at the Fossil Country Museum, Teri Picerno is Kemmerer's de facto historian and booster. She also owns the main bar in town, Grumpies. It's a favorite for folks who work at the only remaining coal mine, which dominates the horizon west of town. It filed for bankruptcy in 2018. Soon after, word came that the power plant it feeds will be decommissioned in 2025.

PICERNO: Once the power plant closes, if the local coal mine can't secure more contracts, they'll have to close as well. You know, that would be a loss of another 300 jobs and their families. And I think that's - that bothers a lot of people. I mean, it's kind of scary, you know, to think that you've been working somewhere for 20 years and it could all go away next year.

SIEGLER: But what if those jobs from the old fossil fuel economy didn't have to go away? Well, that's the promise behind an announcement that came a few weeks ago that's bringing some hope to Kemmerer - a planned nuclear power plant.

CHRIS LEVESQUE: This story of retiring coal plants is common, and they need something to replace it.

SIEGLER: Chris Levesque is driving his rental car past the Naughton coal plant. He turns left, though, into a mostly empty field where the company he runs, TerraPower, has big plans - a $4 billion Natrium reactor and advanced nuclear energy plant. It's billed as an emissions-free baseline power source that can easily be switched on when solar or wind is intermittent.

LEVESQUE: You know, the significance of where we are is we're going to be able to use the team from the Naughton plant, which is over 200 operators who are skilled power plant operators. We're going to be able to use the electrical connection to the grid.

SIEGLER: And the coal plant's water-cooling source. TerraPower has big backers. It's a Seattle-area nuclear energy company founded by Bill Gates, who's partnering with Wyoming's largest utility and the U.S. government on this project. There's also about $2 billion from the new infrastructure law.

LEVESQUE: I'm very excited about our technology and what it can do for the world, but also really excited that, you know, we're helping a community here turn a corner.

SIEGLER: If TerraPower's plan works and can be replicated elsewhere, it'd be huge for a rural energy state like Wyoming. Ninety percent of the power produced here comes from fossil fuels. But the utility Rocky Mountain Power announced it will retire all of its 11 coal plants in the state by 2039.

LEVESQUE: We're also really happy to be here in a state that's thinking pretty progressively about the clean energy transition. And we're excited to be working in Wyoming and helping them find opportunity in this transition.

SIEGLER: Progressive isn't a word usually embraced by Wyoming politicians. In fact, the governor here recently signed a law that aimed to prevent utilities from closing coal plants. Wyoming also tried to sue when a permit for an export terminal on the West Coast was denied. And its entire congressional delegation voted against the infrastructure bill that will soon support Kemmerer.

KATHY KARPAN: The coal industry is disappearing. That is a painful truth that Wyoming people are perhaps reluctant to accept.

SIEGLER: Kathy Karpan herself struggles with it. She's a former Wyoming secretary of state, now retired. Karpan grew up in a coal mining family and says coal's in her blood. Like so many here, taxes from it helped pay for her education, and the family's wages put her through college. But that legacy is going away, she says, as demand for coal plummets.

KARPAN: We have had not only high-paying jobs here, but because we export energy to the rest of the country, we have other people paying our taxes, so we are really going to get a double whammy.

SIEGLER: Few Wyoming towns are more dependent on coal than Kemmerer, so a still speculative bet on nuclear being the savior is being met with some guarded optimism. TerraPower chose Kemmerer's plant for its first Natrium reactor over three other Wyoming coal plants also scheduled to close.

(APPLAUSE)

SIEGLER: At a recent meeting at the Best Western, company executives got a mostly warm reception from business and community leaders, though there are still a lot of uncertainties from what will happen to the nuclear waste to what exactly it's going to take to train coal plant workers to run a nuclear reactor.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So construction, again, starting in earnest in 2024.

SIEGLER: In the crowd on that blustery afternoon was Jerry Hansen, a local county commissioner who later told me that a lot is riding on the nuclear plan. It was a shock when it was finally official that the Naughton coal plant would close.

JERRY HANSEN: This is - we're talking people here. This is jobs. It's families. It's community. It's schools.

SIEGLER: This is one of the most conservative corners of the country. Donald Trump got 82% of the vote in Lincoln County. Hansen says Wyoming prides itself on being self-reliant, but he says the Biden administration owes something to coal-dependent states if there's going to be a transition to cleaner-burning fuels. And in Kemmerer, there's still a lot of anxiety over what's going to happen with the new power plant, the coal mine, the JCPenney's (ph). Teri Picerno, the bar owner, says it's hard to get straight answers from corporations and politicians.

PICERNO: You know, you hear people saying we're going to transition away from coal and move to nuclear, wind and solar. At the same time, you have governor working his butt off to find other uses for coal and make sure coal isn't taken out of the economy altogether.

SIEGLER: An irony playing out is that it was also environmental laws that once led to a boom here. When the Clean Air Act was passed, power plants began favoring Wyoming's low-sulfur coal over Appalachian coal. As the former Secretary of State Kathy Karpan put it, now the environment and climate change will probably bury the same Wyoming industry.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANYONS OF STATIC'S "THE DISAPPEARANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.
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