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Army fancies unfinished nuclear plant for training

Tom Banse
Northwest News Network
Soldiers practice decontamination protocol after a training scenario inside the nuclear reactor building at Satsop. Courtesy Satsop Business Park

The quest to find new uses for an uncompleted nuclear power plant in western Washington has a new twist. The U.S. Army has taken a liking to training soldiers in the tunnels, plazas and towers of the old Satsop complex.About 100 soldiers from the 61st Chemical Company are camped out this week at what's now known as the Satsop Business Park. By day, commanders invent scenarios that put the relics of a past nuclear age to new use.

Thirty years ago this place was a nuclear power plant construction site managed by a consortium known by its acronym WPPSS. The project advanced pretty far before the region's utilities got cold feet in the mid-1980s.

Now in the massive complex, Army Captain John Boyle directs his soldiers to find and destroy pretend weapons of mass destruction.

"This nuclear plant never went online. What it does is provide a good aesthetic, a good training environment to capture the realism that we need to train on versus mock or simulated scenarios that we have a Joint Base Lewis-McChord."

The scenario for this day requires a platoon to scout and safely dismantle an imaginary terrorist's clandestine lab. Soldiers in hazmat suits venture into a spooky underground tunnel and practice decontamination in the shadow of a huge cooling tower.

"Definitely memorable" is the assessment of Private Wayne Henry. "Being out here is definitely a special experience. I don't think there is anything else training wise that can compare to what we're doing out here."

The gun-toting soldiers sometimes get funny looks from other people doing business at the industrial park. But landlord Stan Ratcliff says everyone gets along.

"We have about 10 businesses that do work here, so obviously they see people in Army uniforms carrying weapons around. We incorporate the tenants in the whole discussion of what happens here and things like that. People up here have been very supportive of it."

Ratcliff says various Army units have booked training time at the old nuclear plant for 30 weeks of the year.

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Copyright 2011 Northwest News Network

Tom Banse covers national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be found online and heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.
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