Looming ominously over a verdant river valley near Elma, Washington, the twin cooling towers of Unit 3 and 5 of the Satsop Nuclear Power Plant serve as memorials to an amibitious plan by Washington State to revolutionize energy production.
It was the early 1970s, and a consortium of municipal power companies joined together for an auspicious multi-billion dollar plan to build five nuclear power plants across the state that would create over 6 Gigawatts of electricity.
Washington State already produced the most hydroelectric power in the country, but statewide demand for electricity was growing by 7% every year, and nuclear power was nominated as the solution. Three plants were to be built in or near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation on the Columbia River, and two others were planned for this site near the Satsop River.
The Washington Public Power Supply System (or “Whoops” as it was later mocked), ran into severe financial and public perception problems when the plants at Satsop were only 76% complete. Construction costs had run $960 million over budget, and American citizens were reeling from the shock of the Three Mile Island incident in New York, bringing the WPPSS to collapse in 1983.
Only one of the 5 planned facilities was ever completed and activated: Washington Nuclear Power Unit 2, now called the Columbia Generating Station, located on the Hanford Reservation far to the south and east of its ill-fated siblings at Satsop.
No radioactive fuel was ever brought to the Satsop facility. The turbines that would create electricity, and all other machinery associated with the reactors, have been removed and liquidated. But the cooling towers remain. A vertigo-inducing 46 stories high, the concrete towers can be seen for miles, and are regularly used as landmarks for trans-continental flights.
The Satsop facility lay dormant for a decade until the Grays Harbor County government petitioned WPPSS to leverage the site for economic development. A top of the line communications infrastructure has been one of the incentives that brought businesses to the renamed Satsop Development Park. Steel tank manufacturers, an internet service provider and a commercial drivers’ training program now all conduct business under the shadows of the benign towers.