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Acoustic lab is right at home in a former nuclear reactor

Most drivers passing by the twin cooling towers looming over the forest near Elma, Washington probably don’t think to themselves, when can I move in?  But that was exactly the thought audio engineer Ron Sauro had.

The Satsop Nuclear Plant never generated a watt of electricity, and been begging for commercial tenants for years.  Now the cavernous and windowless nuclear reactor building has a new occupant.

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,” Sauro said.

He says the Satsop nuclear project site is a much cheaper alternative.  The reactor building he is in was mostly complete when construction stopped in the early 1980’s. 

It was a complete debacle that the region’s electric ratepayers are still paying for, but it’s a “perfect” setup for Sauro.

There was never any reactor fuel, but there is ten feet of concrete between him and the outside, making what Sauro says to be “the quietest room in the world.”

The Sauros blast audio tones at earsplitting levels to test the sound blocking properties of various construction materials.  Think: doors, windows and wall insulation.  The lab also produces ratings for loudspeakers.

The strange noises don’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 this white elephant.  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 has leased just a small fraction of the available space in the reactor building.  Ratcliff is hoping as word gets around, more companies that need isolation will come.

Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.