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Ordinary Business Moves into Nuclear Plant

  • Tom Banse

Ron Sauro's acoutic testing lab is nestled deep inside the abandoned Satsop nuclear plant near Elma, Washington.

After sitting empty for years, the abandoned Satsop facility finally has a tenant

The Satsop nuclear plant in western Washington State never generated a kilowatt of electricity. The cavernous and windowless nuclear reactor building has gone begging for commercial tenants for years. And it finally has one.

Audio engineer Ron Sauro saw nothing but possibilities when he caught sight of the twin cooling towers looming over the forest near Elma, Washington. Sauro and his wife, Bonnie, run NWAA Labs, a small acoustic testing business. They were looking for a place with splendid isolation to open a state-of-the-art acoustic testing lab.

"When we normally build these kinds of laboratories, we usually build them underground or in the side of a mountain in order to be able to stabilize their environment," he says, adding that the Satsop nuclear project site is a much cheaper alternative.

The reactor building was almost finished when construction stopped in the early 1980's. The utility consortium backing the project discovered it had overestimated future electricity demand. Also, public opinion turned against nuclear energy after a 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island power plant in Pennsylvania.

The mothballing of the Satsop nuclear project was such a debacle, the region's electric ratepayers are still paying for it. But it's a perfect setup for Sauro. Three meters worth of concrete walls stand between his lab and the outside. It was originally meant to contain nuclear radiation, though no reactor fuel was ever brought to the uncompleted power plant.

NWAA Labs president Ron Sauro shows off his reverberation room, which is located in an abandoned nuclear plant.
NWAA Labs president Ron Sauro shows off his reverberation room, which is located in an abandoned nuclear plant.

Now it houses what Sauro calls "the quietest room in the world."

Normally he blasts audio tones at earsplitting levels to test the sound blocking properties of various construction materials - doors, windows and wall insulation. The lab also produces ratings for loudspeakers.

The strange noise doesn't bother anyone else because of the super thick concrete walls. Just as the racket from the outside world can't penetrate in and throw off the measurements.

Sauro's landlord says his new tenant is getting an unbelievable deal., considering how much the region's utilities paid to build the failed nuke plant. Stan Ratcliff of the Satsop Development Park calls the place "one of a kind."

"Just the concrete work - not talking about other things that were done within the building, not even the design - but just the concrete work was $440 million."

The acoustic lab leases just a small fraction of the available space in the reactor building. Ratcliff hopes word will get around, attracting more companies in need of isolation who see much more than an abandoned old power plant.