Long-vacant Satsop reactor building put to use as a world-class acoustical lab

Ron Sauro, a former NASA researcher and professional musician, shows off one of the reverberation testing rooms deep inside the reactor building of the former Satsop nuclear power plant Thursday south of Elma.
Ron Sauro, a former NASA researcher and professional musician, shows off one of the reverberation testing rooms deep inside the reactor building of the former Satsop nuclear power plant Thursday south of Elma. The Olympian

SATSOP – Work ground to a halt on Satsop nuclear reactor building more than 25 years ago before it ever produced a kilowatt of electricity.

The $440 million concrete behemoth designed to withstand a massive earthquake and a direct hit from a jet airliner sat empty for years, a lasting legacy to the failed nuclear plant construction program of the Washington Public Power Supply System on Fuller Hill near Elma.

Then along came Ron Sauro, an energetic scientist and entrepreneur who sees opportunity and jobs where others see gloomy concrete rooms and lost dreams of energy too cheap to meter.

Deep in the bowels of the 400,000-square-foot reactor building, Sauro has built a world-class acoustical laboratory to test how a variety of building materials and speakers absorb and transmit sound.

It took some precise carpentry and sophisticated electronics to shape the lab. But the reactor building was ideal for the retrofit job with its 10-foot-thick concrete foundation floating on a bed of gravel and its five-foot-thick walls.

“What we wanted was stability from all outside elements, including temperature, humidity and noise,” he said. “This is a one-of-a-kind place.”

The prototype laboratory Sauro opened this year includes two reverberation chambers that are the largest of their kind in the world, he said. One of them used to be the control room for the nuclear reactor that never was loaded with fuel.

“The bigger the room, the lower the sound frequency we can test,” he said, adding that he hopes to build even larger acoustics-testing rooms in the reactor building soon.

He recently signed a four-year lease with the Grays Harbor Public Development Authority, moving his business, NWAA Labs, from Santa Clarita, Calif., to the Satsop Development Park. The park is the 1.700-acre business and technology park that once was the home to two of the five nuclear power projects WPPSS attempted to build. The supply system, a consortium of public utilities beset by mismanagement, cost overruns and public opposition to nuclear power in the Pacific Northwest, only finished one at Hanford.

Stan Ratcliff, director of services at Satsop Development Park and a former WPPSS employee at Satsop, worked with Sauro to relocate his business in the former reactor building.

“I enjoy matching up businesses with the perfect spot for them here at Satsop – and this shoe fits,” Ratcliff said.Sauro and his wife, Bonita Jay, have invested their life savings in the $100,000 project. It would have cost up to $1.5 million to build the lab from scratch.

He has begun testing for clients and received his first paycheck this month.

The first customer was Perdue Acoustics of Amarillo, Texas, which manufactures wall and ceiling panels to absorb and diffuse sound.

“This new process is revolutionizing acoustical testing, and Ron Sauro is leading the way,” Perdue Acoustics President Jack Perdue said.

Sauro likes to patrol the gigantic nuclear power plant complex, including the reactor building, which is 16 stories, and one of the two cooling towers, which is the height of the Space Needle and encloses more than three acres. He envisions the day when the abandoned, costly structures are home to the largest environmental testing laboratory in the world. His plans, none of which have secured financing, include:

Move the Boeing Co. jet engine tests from the Mojave Desert in California to inside the Project 3 cooling tower.

Turn the concrete building that houses a storage tank for nuclear reactor makeup water into an “anechoic” chamber, which is the opposite of the reverberation room in his acoustic lab.

“It would be the quietest room in the world,” he said. “You’d be able to hear your heart beating and the blood rushing through your ears when you went into that room.”

Use the honeycomb of underground reactor rooms to test products for their ability to withstand heat, impact and wind.

Convert the huge stainless steel pools built to store spent nuclear fuel rods in water into testing sites for unmanned, underwater vehicles.

“I can envision putting 70 to 80 percent of the reactor building to use in the next five or six years,” he said. “There’s a facility here with lots of potential, but it takes money.”

John Dodge: 360-754-5444jdodge@theolympian.com

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