Failed Visions of a Nuclear Future: The Satsop Power Plant

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.


Weyerhaeuser World Headquarters: Beauty of the Beast


     Began by Fredrick Weyerhaeuser in 1900, this multi-national corporation has grown into an industry leader in paper and pulp production, private timber land ownership and now real estate development.  Its long history illustrates a company of vision and business acumen, and also of environmental recklessness.  Its operations span the globe, and it owns tens of millions of acres in the United States alone.

     Just off Interstate 5 in Federal Way lies its international corporate headquarters. The 500 acre site was developed in 1971 by Skidmore, Owings & Merill, the same group that built the Sears Tower in Chicago.  Considered a modernist masterpiece, the building was dubbed a “groundscraper,” implying that its majesty was displayed horizontally rather than vertically.

     The main building was one of the first large-scale office complexes that sought integration with its environment.  The long planes of concrete seem nestled between the green hills on either side of the building.  Ivy envelops each of the terraces, giving the impression that the building has arisen from the earth below, rather than having been placed upon it. 

     At the west entrance to the offices, an enormous boulder rises from the center of the roundabout.  Weighing in at 70 tons, this sculpture, entitled “Guardian Rock” was created by San Francisco artist Gordon Newell for the original opening of the building.

     Miles of trails and pathways weave through the surrounding forest on the property.  The photo above shows a glen commemorating a company officer who died unexpectedly.  The long mossy bench, surrounded by rock work, is almost indistinguishable from the greenery around it.

     The Weyerhaeuser property also holds the Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection. Before its closure in early 2009, the exhibit held over 60 masterpieces of this subtle fusion of art and nature.  The company suffered severe losses in 2008 due to the collapse of the housing construction industry, and the Bonsai Collection was one of its many budget cuts.

     Adjacent to the shuttered bonsai exhibits is the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden.  Hundreds of these plants, varying in size and type, are labeled along the wooded trails. Especially beautiful was the Alpine Garden, pictured above, where the color and texture of the plants approximates the scenery of a high altitude hike at Mt. Rainier.  This garden comes highly recommended in June and July, when the flowering plants are in bloom.

     As a giant in the natural resources extraction business, Weyerhaeuser has paid millions in dollars in fines for environmental negligence.  What a powerful irony then, that in their own backyard, the company has created an almost religious tribute to all things natural: a 354,000 square foot building that miraculously rests peacefully within the land, woodland trails that offer solitude, and gardens that celebrate the wondrous variety of the botanical world.  

The Old Chain and the Sea

Filling In the Cracks



     The old Delson Mill property lies on West Bay Drive, beside Budd Inlet in Olympia.  For decades, logs were hauled in, cut and stored on these acres.  The enormous stacks of lumber awaited shipment out by train, ship and truck.

     As with most of Olympia’s once booming timber industry, the operation is now closed.  The mill has been razed and the property is essentially empty, awaiting its new identity as a city park.

     Concrete has cracked with age, foundations lay bare and ironworks have rusted.  Moss, broken seashells and glass have nestled into the contours of the ruins, creating their own intricate designs.  

    As you walk the area, the eye is drawn to a surprising number of circles and squares; highlights in this gallery of accidental collaborations between what man left behind and nature filled in.  

     These photos are an exploration of the simple, reassuring geometry that can exist on a disturbed landscape no longer what it was, and not yet what it will be.



Where Monks Rest in Peace

     Guarding the gates at St. Martin’s Abbey graveyard stands Archangel Michael, sword unsheathed, and Archangel Gabriel, poised to sound his trumpet.  Interred within are 98 Brothers and Fathers that have served with the Order of Saint Benedict in Lacey, Washington.  

     The Order is a Catholic monastic tradition dating back 1400 years, and this Abbey was founded in 1895. At present, there are 37 monks vowed to St. Martin’s Abbey, many of whom work or teach at the college on site.  They often walk in small groups about the campus in their unmistakable black woolen cloaks.

     The graveyard sits in the forest behind the campus, enclosed and sheltered by fir trees.  A moss covered rock wall surrounds the site, and on winter mornings you can see to the frosty meadow below.  

   “Look for us the faithful, with the angels and the children, loudly praising the conqueror of death: Hosanna in the highest.” – from their Monastic liturgy


Into the Fog


     In the shadow of Olympia’s 4th Avenue Bridge, defunct railroad tracks stretch out into the fog along their private peninsula in West Bay.  Douglas fir and madrona saplings sprout up between the railroad ties, and blue herons solemnly wait for prey.  The tide recedes twice per day, revealing a mile long swathe of barnacle encrusted rocks and mussel clusters.

     Mallard and wood ducks collect in the protected waters to the left, and cormorants dry their outstretched wings atop the century old pilings.  This unintentional wildlife sanctuary will be cleared for a new city park and trail in the coming years.  A fence was installed recently to bar the public from entry to this area.

The Lost Park

     Everyone around here has been to the lovely Deschutes River waterfalls by the old Olympia Brewery.  Easy to reach by car, it is a popular spot to bring visiting families.  We are not talking about that park.  Twenty miles upriver, far away from town, there is another park full of waterfalls covering a much larger 154 acres.

    This other park, much wilder and inaccessible by automobile,  boasts a 75 foot gorge, a mystical forest dripping with moss, plus the remains of a century old campground.  This other park exists, but you are not allowed to enter it.

     Deschutes Falls County Park, east of Yelm near the Bald Hills, was purchased by Thurston County in 1993.  Its history as a park dates back to the turn of the century, where for 5 cents a head,  families could bring a picnic and swim in the river on hot days.  The park was closed up in the 50s, and aside from the boundary fence, no human development has occurred since.

     Exploring it now, you will find picnic tables rotting back into the earth, collapsed latrine-style bathrooms, and illegible rain-bleached signs whose messages are lost to time.

     Down past the picnic area roars the Deschutes River, pouring over two waterfalls and dropping finally into a majestic gorge.  The river banks are lined with old growth drift logs polished to a shine, run aground on fantastic rock outcroppings.  

     The surrounding trees are draped with a bewildering array of green life, moss and lichen hanging from every branch like a primeval gala.  A powerful history lives here, both of an ancient river thundering towards the sea, and also of the ghostly structures left behind by people.

     This natural wonder is off-limits to the public, surrounded by a cyclone fence for the last 15 years.  Legend holds that too many beer addled teens were cliff-jumping to their demise.  And to be fair, it is a very slippery and steep slope by the falls.  

     Thurston County Parks did a cost assessment of reopening the park sometime in the future.  The opportunity for a truly spectacular public park exists here, but the expense of implementing safety features and building facilities keeps its development low on the priority list.  For now, it stays locked up.  

     And behind that fence, doing what they have always done,  the cold river continues to carve the land, and the woods continue to swallow up what we once built.

Beer, bricks and bankruptcy

     The old Olympia brewhouse was only actively brewing beer for 10 years, from 1906 until state Prohibition around 1916, yet its architecture has inspired awe for over a century.   A towering Italianate structure overlooking the Deschutes River,it was once the headquarters of the Schmidt family west coast beer empire.
     A walk around the property now reveals ivy vines as thick as a forearm creeping up its sides, splitting the bricks as its roots expand.  Roofs have collapsed, windows are broken, and brilliant orange lichen shroud the sandstone arched entrance.
     It has lived most of its life as the unwanted step-brother to the “newer” Olympia brewery up the hill.  Passed along through repeated corporate marriages, each time with promises of a facelift, and a new lease on life.  Pabst Brewing, Miller and then All American Bottling have all neglected this old brewhouse, in spite of its membership on the National Register of Historic Places.
     All around the country, old industrial mills, brewhouses and factories are being converted into multi-family residences and retail space.  A hugely successful project was completed just half an hour to the north in Tacoma, where Grace Pleasants, and her company Heritage Properties, purchased and renovated a derelict cereal mill.  The Albers Mill Lofts now offer dozens of cutting edge apartments plus retail space on the ground floor, an architectural gem that connects Tacoma’s past to its present.
     Could this kind of rebirth be offered to the old Olympia brewhouse?  Stylish riverfront loft apartments with a cafe and shops downstairs, packaged in a vintage brick building? Not likely at this point.  Too many years have passed, and the possibility of an affordable restoration has passed with them.  Investors have looked, and the numbers just wouldn’t pencil out.
     The future of the entire complex, new brewhouse and old brewhouse included, is in limbo.  The most recent acquirers declared bankruptcy, leaving the property in the hands of the lenders, who have had it up for sale for years.  
The three neighboring cities are divvying up the water rights of the property,and all the machinery inside has been sold off.  
     Mostly left alone now, the old brewhouse stands quietly by the river in its own eddy in time, slowly but insistently dismantled by the elements.