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Deeply reported package explores the shift away from fossil fuels, impact on states, communities

Workers from Craig Station, a coal-fired power plant, pose for a photograph in Craig, Colo., Nov. 17, 2021. From left: Ron Geary, Gene LeFeure, Trinidad Loya and Wes Lytle. The plant has been a source of job security for decades, but it is closing, along with the mine that feeds it. Together they employ about 300 people; all will lose their jobs according the an owner and operator of the plant. (AP Photo / Rick Bowmer)

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Rhode Island-based reporter Jennifer McDermott was researching energy policies in all 50 states when she made an unexpected discovery: Roughly two-thirds of states in the U.S., including ones led by Democrats, plan to use nuclear power as an essential part of their energy plan to replace coal, oil and natural gas. Some of those plans will rely on a new, smaller type of reactor now under development.

McDermott’s story detailed exclusively how the transition away from fossil fuels is forcing U.S. states to make hard choices about nuclear power. Although it does not produce greenhouse gases, nuclear fuel has a big downside: radioactive waste can remain dangerous for thousands of years.

Her state-by-state reporting was also the basis for a localization guide that allowed AP customers to tailor their energy stories to their own audiences.

While McDermott reported her story, assisted by input from Washington reporter Matthew Daly, Rockies news editor Brady McCombs and Wyoming reporter Mead Gruver worked together to tell the story of a small Wyoming town that is replacing its coal plant with the nontraditional,sodium-cooled nuclear reactor by TerraPower,a company started by Bill Gates.

At a downtown bar called Grumpies,pool-playing residents said they were excited by the economic opportunity,but also wary of becoming a nuclear town. Still, in the words of one resident: the town “needs something or it’ll become a dust bowl.”

Video journalist Manuel Valdes and photographers Elaine Thompson and Natalie Behring provided vivid visuals and crucial detail for the Wyoming story and also for McDermott’s mainbar, getting access to a lab near Seattle where TerraPower is building modular nuclear reactors.

In other parts of the U.S.,coal towns are being left behind. For a story illustrating the devastating effects of that, Denver-based Report for America corps member Patty Nieberg and Salt Lake City-based photographer Rick Bowmer traveled to a small town in Colorado where coal is being phased out after generations,with no plans to replace it. “We can’t recover from that,” a former mayor told the AP.

As the reporting and editing unfolded,the editors involved — from AP’s state government,West, climate and enterprise teams — recognized the common theme and decided to run the stories as a package over two days.

The stories,photos and videos showed the nation’s struggles as it shifts energy sources to stave off the worst effects of climate change,and the effects of that shift in local communities. And showcasing the AP’s 50-state footprint,the localization guide took the package a step further, helping AP’s customers bring the debate home for their own audiences.

Because Europe is wrestling with the same issues as the U.S.,the three stories played widely at home and abroad,from local papers to national news outlets. McDermott’s lead story was used online by nearly 1,400 AP customers and had more than 18,000 Facebook interactions. The video package (which combined elements of the two nuclear stories) was downloaded by clients in at least 15 countries,from India to the United Arab Emirates.

For superior coverage bringing to light developments in energy policy across the country and the effects on people at a local level,the team of McDermott,McCombs,Gruver,Nieberg,Bowmer,Valdes, Thompson and Behring is AP’s Best of the Week — First Winner.

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