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As Utah’s Rocky Mountain Power looks to nuclear power, what happens to all the coal jobs?

The Huntington coal-fired power plant near Huntington, Utah in Emery County.
Getty Images/iStockphoto
The Huntington coal-fired power plant near Huntington, Utah in Emery County.

Two of Utah’s coal-fired power plants will close by 2032. But what happens to the communities that have relied on those plants for jobs?

“We've had a long relationship with coal mines and power plants, and so change is, obviously, something scary and maybe a little bit intimidating to us,” said Ferron City Mayor Adele Justice. “But I think we're ready to see what the future holds.”

It’s a future that likely includes nuclear energy. The Huntington and Hunter coal-fired plants in Emery County have already been identified as possible locations for future nuclear power stations in Rocky Mountain Power’s latest long-term planning document.

The company has anticipated the need in the next 10 years for two new nuclear-powered facilities, similar to the delayed project underway in Kemmerer, Wyoming.

“Those could be at Hunter and Huntington sites,” said Rocky Mountain Power spokesperson David Eskelsen. “The anticipation is that it would be useful to use the transmission interconnections that currently exist with those plants.”

Talk of decommissioning the two coal-fired plants has been ongoing since 2018 as the markets have begun to shift away from fossil fuels, Eskelsen said, but the recent announcement bumps up their expected closures by as much as 10 years in the case of the Hunter plant.

The two coal facilities account for more than 300 jobs. The company said it doesn’t plan on leaving those employees out in the cold, either.

“When we've had retirements of existing plants, we do our best to make arrangements for our employees to, if they want to stay with the company, to retrain and redeploy at other facilities in our service area,” Eskelsen said.

Rocky Mountain Power will be releasing a “community action plan” next year and expects to be training employees on new technologies by 2027.

In Emery County, local leaders are cautiously optimistic about the future.

“We're a small community that's very close and we like to have our kids be able to retain jobs here and stay here in the area,” Justice said. “Family and community is very important to us and so it concerns us when there's going to be such a big change.”

By her own estimation, the majority of Ferron’s residents are employed by nearby power plants or coal mines.

Other local leaders see the impending closures and transition to nuclear power as a massive opportunity for the region to continue to supply jobs for years to come.

“I think the next 10 years are going to be very exciting for Emery County,” said Castle Dale Mayor Danny Van Wagoner. “It's also going to give us a little bit of closure about what was going to happen because we knew that the fossil fuel plants were going to be closed down. This way, we have a big window moving forward of jobs and what jobs can be created.”

The first phase of closures at the Hunter plant is expected in 2031. Rocky Mountain Power said it will engage with local communities before selecting the final sites for Utah’s future nuclear facilities.

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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