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Originally published September 7, 2013 at 8:07 PM | Page modified September 7, 2013 at 8:17 PM

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Satsop courts Hollywood to use old nuke plant for filming

The two long-abandoned towers in Grays Harbor County are being offered as ideal for filmmaking. But there are no takers so far.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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ELMA, Grays Harbor County —

Hello, film moguls! Looking for the perfect site for that apocalyptic sci-fi movie?

The mothballed Satsop nuclear-plant site out here in the boonies has quite a deal for you. Only $1,000 to $3,000 a day, depending on crew size.

It’s now part of the 1,700-acre Satsop Business Park run by the Port of Grays Harbor, which in April began promoting it as “the new Hollywood sweetheart.”

But, so far, no filmmakers have signed a contract, although one major studio has expressed interest.

Says Alissa Shay, manager of business development for the park: “I wish I had a magic crystal ball I could read. It’s about figuring out how to get on the radar of location scouts.”

Certainly a visit, especially on a thunderous, lightning-filled afternoon last week, shows the site’s apocalyptic filming potential.

A couple of highlights of what you’ll get:

Two mammoth, nearly 500-foot-tall cooling towers, those gray chimney structures that viscerally message, “Let’s go nuclear, baby!”

Stand inside the cooling tower farthest west, which at 440 feet across at the base is 1½-times the length of a football field, and just try talking. Your words will eerily echo-echo-echo back to you.

You will have to sign waivers for both “physical and psychological problems” in case anyone decides to climb the outside stairs.

Then there is the 5-story nuclear-reactor building with 3-foot-thick, steel-reinforced concrete walls.

Its cavernous, wide hallways with various piping around the 562-ton reactor vessel are lit up with bare fluorescent lights and, periodically, an arrow sprayed in orange with “EXIT” above it. In case, you know, maybe you get a panic attack after passing the “DANGER LOOK UP” sign.

Interrogation scenes

An added touch are the numerous dark concrete rooms that were going to house something connected with nukes, but now are perfect for a film with scenes of specialized interrogation or maybe setting off some explosives.

Take it from an expert: You want a place to set off big booms, this is it.

That’d be Brennan Phillips, the Northwest explosives-enforcement officer for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

In August, he coordinated a weeklong training exercise at Satsop for police and military squads from this state, Canada and Mexico.

Among stuff they detonated were pressure cookers filled with “a small charge.”

They certainly made plenty of noise, “kind of like the thunder you’re hearing,” remembers Rollie Irwin, one of the management guys at a steel-fabrication firm that is among about a dozen and a half companies that lease space at Satsop.

Both he and Phillips think the site is perfect for movies.

Says Irwin, “All the stuff you could do — those cubby holes, the cooling towers.”

Phillips says technicians described running around the reactor building “as kind of like the movie ‘Aliens,’ the second movie, when they’re in the power plant.”

In an article for the bomb technicians’ magazine — aptly called The Detonator — the technicians themselves describe the Satsop site as “post-apocalyptic.”

The Satsop site (with two reactors) and one at Hanford (with three reactors) were part of the infamous Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS, or as it sank into a $2.25 billion bond default, “Whoops”).

Thirty years ago, four of the five reactor projects were abandoned, with only one at Hanford finished.

In 2006, Oregon blew up its abandoned Trojan Nuclear Plant cooling tower along the Columbia River. There is no such implosion planned for Satsop. Too costly. “It would have cost $2 million apiece to blow them up,” says Ross Read, the park’s operations manager.

Eventually, the county took over Satsop and turned it into a business park.

Alissa Shay says the park is breaking even, but it’s always looking for new income.

Tour requests

She says that at least once a week, Satsop gets requests from groups wanting a tour. Over the years, a few artists have used the site for their work.

In June 2011, a Seattle band called Endless Sunder, which describes itself as an “electro industrial band,” made a video for one its tunes, “Mechanism,” at Satsop. It features guys wearing yellow biohazard suits and carrying guns, and, you know, lots of flickering weird images.

For recording at the site, Satsop charged the band $150, a long ways from what they hope to get from Hollywood.

And right now, at Seattle’s Davidson Galleries, local artist Etsuko Ichikawa has an exhibit “Echo at Satsop” that was “prompted by the recent tsunami and nuclear tragedies in Japan.”

It includes a video done at Satsop that features not only a cooling tower but a lot of slow-motion, pondering images of Ichikawa herself.

That earned Satsop $275, also not the Hollywood income it hopes for.

“We definitely envision sci-fi movies, blockbuster films,” says Shay.

Satsop does have hope in the contact it has had with Jonathan Hook, a supervising location manager for Paramount Pictures.

He thinks Satsop “is great” but also says, “I can’t talk to you.”

Shay says she’s learning it’s a different world, that of Hollywood. In talking to location scouts, she says, “They’re so vague.”

Amy Lillard, executive director of Washington Filmworks, a nonprofit with a goal of bringing film and video production to this state, says it now includes Satsop in its database accessed by location scouts.

“On film, it’s going to look fantastic,” she says about Satsop. “It has a unique look. There are not many decommissioned nuclear power plants. That’s a marketing tool.”

Really, all that those location scouts have to do is make the two-hour drive from Seattle, take the Elma exit, drive three miles to a hill where Satsop sits in its earthquake-resistant sandstone ground.

Through the fog, there they will be, those monster cooling towers, those tons and tons of concrete, all those gloomy hallways circling a reactor.

As the website for the park promises, “A truly unique visual asset.”

Times researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

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