Bill Gates’ nuclear project breaks ground, marking a new chapter for a struggling Wyoming coal town

Caitlin Tan Jun 20, 2024
Heard on:
Multibillionaire Bill Gates speaks to a crowd at his nuclear company’s groundbreaking near Kemmerer, Wyoming. Caitlin Tan/Wyoming Public Media

Bill Gates’ nuclear project breaks ground, marking a new chapter for a struggling Wyoming coal town

Caitlin Tan Jun 20, 2024
Heard on:
Multibillionaire Bill Gates speaks to a crowd at his nuclear company’s groundbreaking near Kemmerer, Wyoming. Caitlin Tan/Wyoming Public Media

Almost three years ago, an unlikely relationship formed between the declining coal town of Kemmerer, Wyoming and one of the richest people in the world – Bill Gates. That’s because his nuclear company, TerraPower, announced it had chosen the community of about 2,500 people for a first-of-its-kind power plant, in part because of Wyoming’s wide open space and existing energy infrastructure. 

Gates and the U.S. Department of Energy are the two main backers of the $4 billion project. There is hope it will pump life back into struggling economies. 

But unless one is deeply embedded in the energy world, it mostly just felt like a lot of talk to residents – until this month, when the project broke ground. 

“Kemmerer’s been good for us”

Mark Thatcher opened the door of his gray stucco home in Kemmerer in early June. Photos of his 21 grandkids covered the hallway wall.  

“I had a grandaughter just graduate,” he beamed. “Can I brag on this?” 

Thatcher built his American dream in this southwest Wyoming coal town. He worked as an electrician in the mine, bought a house, raised a family and retired.

Mark Thatcher stands by his wall celebrating his grandkids and their accolades. He raised his family in Kemmerer, where he worked as an electrician in the coal mine since the 1980s. (Caitlin Tan/Wyoming Public Media)

“So you know what I mean? Kemmerer’s been good for us,” he said. 

And Thatcher wants that for his grandkids.

“If Kemmerer’s dried up, it’s not an opportunity,” he said. 

Kemmerer and coal go hand-in-hand. Notably, Wyoming is the top coal-producing state in the nation. 

So for a while, the town emptied out, mirroring coal’s 16-year decline

“I would say six, seven years ago, there were over 60 empty homes here,” Thatcher recalled. 

But now, there are just 13 homes for sale. Thatcher said Kemmerer is feeling more lively. New families are moving in. There are new businesses and jobs. He thinks it is thanks to several new energy projects in the area, including nuclear. 

Bill Gates and his shovel

In a nearby sea of sagebrush, TerraPower recently broke ground on its nuclear power project. 

On the early June day, Kemmerer’s City Administrator Brian Muir scanned the crowd of about 300. He looked visibly relieved, “after a lot of uncertainty in getting here.” 

That is because the nearby coal plant is permanently closing by 2036.

Even more, it’s fully switching to natural gas in two years. That timeline puts a question mark on the future of the Kemmerer coal mine that serves it. 

Muir’s hope is for those hundreds of workers to be absorbed by the future nuclear facility, which promises 250 long-term jobs and 1,600 temporary construction jobs.

“I think the eyes of the world are upon us to see how soon we can get this done,” he said. 

Primarily because it is a pilot project. Some parts still need to be permitted by the federal government. 

Conventional nuclear power plants are massive and require a lot of water. TerraPower figured out an alternative with their technology dubbed Natrium. This will make the plants smaller, safer, cheaper and more climate-friendly — in theory. 

“It’s working really well inside the computer,” said Bill Gates, standing at the podium. 

The multibillionaire and founder of TerraPower looked on brand at the ground breaking celebration, wearing a blue sweater and black-rimmed glasses. He motioned to the leveled dirt and a tractor (adorned with a Wyoming state flag) behind him. 

“Little bit harder to make it work out there,” Gates lightly chuckled. “But that’s what we’re starting on, starting today.” 

TerraPower still needs to secure a domestic source of fuel — a highly enriched uranium. Right now, it’s only made in Russia

Gates’ vision is for these plants to be the future of America’s growing energy demands — specifically in former coal towns. TerraPower said the plants will tap into existing coal power plant infrastructure and workforce. 

“And you’re the pioneers that are going to make that happen,” Gates said to the eager crowd of energy stakeholders. 

There are tentative plans for five more TerraPower plants in the Rocky Mountain region. 

And with that, Gates grabbed a shovel and plunged it into the dirt.

“Liberal outsiders”

But not everyone felt the camaraderie. Across the highway were about 10 trucks with flags that said things like, “Make America Great Again” and “Trump 2024.”

Ashton Anderson holds his Trump flag at the protest across from the nuclear groundbreaking.  (Caitlin Tan/Wyoming Public Media)

A dozen or so people stood with Ashton Anderson, who broke away to explain. 

“We just don’t like the idea of liberals coming into our state. It’s that simple,” Anderson said, as he held a flag that read, “Take America Back.”

Anderson said their issue was more with Bill Gates being at the helm — he doesn’t think he is far right enough in his politics. It was less about the actual nuclear project. 

And while many agree Gates’ politics do not align with Wyoming, Kemmerer’s downtown is bustling — even just compared to a year ago. 

A downtown facelift

In the past year, two bakeries, a law office and a home goods boutique opened up downtown. 

And many say business is good, like Tynsky’s Fossils. A little downtown storefront where tourists can buy local fish fossils. Shop co-owner Kodi Tynsky used a small power tool on a fossil, which Kemmerer is also known for. 

Kodi Tynsky stands in front of giant turtle fossil in her shop. Kemmerer is also known for its fossils. (Caitlin Tan/Wyoming Public Media)

“So most of these fish are covered with rock, so we have to uncover it,” she said.

Four years ago she did not know if she could keep the doors open. The town was slow, partly because of COVID. 

“That was our first year of business. So it was very scary,” Tynsky said. 

Business is good now. Several customers came in just within a few minutes. Tynsky added that she thinks it will only get better with the nuclear project. 

“I think it’ll bring in new people, hopefully, so Kemmerer doesn’t become a ghost town again,” she said. 

Construction on the nuclear project is expected to take six years. So for that time at least, Tynsky expects lots of foot traffic and, hopefully, business. 

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