Military News

JBLM soldiers take over abandoned Satsop nuclear plant — but it’s only make believe

Fifty feet underground in the belly of an abandoned nuclear facility, Staff Sgt. David Kinsler finally had the target in his sights.

In an unusual Army exercise this week, Kinsler and his team from Joint Base Lewis-McChord were the first to reach a fictional rogue chemist’s lair. They found threatening-looking vats and dangling fluorescent lights that gave the scene the appearance of an action flick torture chamber.

But, with his eyes on the bad guy, Kinsler missed one last trap for the attacking soldiers: A fake bomb disguised in a pile of garbage left to remind troops to watch where they put their feet.

“A bag of trash jumped up and bit me,” he later joked about the mistake that ended his role in the drill.

The high-stakes scenario was make-believe, but the props looked real when hundreds of JBLM soldiers attacked the defunct Satsop nuclear facility in Grays Harbor County. They were there for a weapons-of-mass-destruction exercise they could not replicate anyplace else.

They gazed up at cooling towers built to withstand jet crashes, then burrowed into underground hallways surrounding a chamber meant for a nuclear reactor that never came.

“It’s not like anything they’ve seen before,” said Lt. Col. Justin Haynes of JBLM’s 502nd Military Intelligence Battalion.

The Army exercise near the city of Elma made for an eerily appropriate use of one of the state’s most notorious financial blunders: The $440 million Washington Public Power Supply System investment in nuclear power at Satsop 30 years ago that was scrapped before it produced a single kilowatt.

Throughout the drills, soldiers peered up at the cooling towers and guessed at the site’s history. Many of them were born well after the state cut its losses and defaulted on $2.25 billion in bonds that were meant to finance WPPS projects.

“Until today, I didn’t know this place existed,” Kinsler, 34, said in the exercise’s last phase Wednesday.

Satsop now houses a business park with a couple of construction companies and an audio laboratory that makes use of the facility’s distinctive acoustics.

The business park occasionally rents out its distinct buildings for military training, films or large firefighting drills.

Groups that deal in emergencies are drawn to the industrial and apocalyptic scenes they can fabricate at Satsop. The Seattle Fire Department and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are regular customers.

In fact, Seattle Fire and ATF stashed extra props underground inside the reactor building, such as a smashed car and rebar-spoked chunk of rubble that a one-time visitor would assume were abandoned by WPPSS decades ago.

Alissa Shay, Satsop’s director of business development, said the park’s primary goal is to fill up its 1,700 acres with job-creating companies.

Military training “is a side business,” she said. “It’s icing on the cake.”

JBLM has used the site occasionally since 2005.

The Army’s latest trip was the centerpiece of a two-week training event for the 201st Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, a unit that contains several intelligence sub-units.

The exercise incorporated 1,500 soldiers carrying out different drills at Satsop, JBLM and the Yakima Training Center, said Brigade Commander Col. Daniel Soller. The idea was to get his intelligence soldiers working as they would in a war zone alongside airmen, infantrymen and special operators.

He characterized the overall exercise as the most complicated training event ever for JBLM’s intelligence brigade.

In the part of the exercise that took place at Satsop, hundreds of infantrymen attacked a fictional chemical weapons facility that had been seized by a hostile force. Troops from Soller’s intelligence units followed, gathering evidence and interviewing detainees captured by the soldiers.

Wednesday’s event kicked off with Chinook helicopter flights ferrying hundreds of soldiers from JBLM to Satsop. Infantrymen fanned out over the property, practicing the movements they’d make to clear an industrial facility.

They filed into a building and encountered soldiers pretending to be enemy forces, as well as others acting as if they were scientists taken prisoner by the hostile regime. Intelligence troops collected documents, checked out suspected bombs and interviewed detainees.

The exercise took on a more intense feel after about an hour when soldiers started to attack the reactor building and its maze of underground cement chambers.

That’s when soldiers had to suit up as if they were about to be exposed to chemical weapons. They donned gas masks and baggy chemical protection suits, sometimes taping shut their sleeves.

“It’s hot,” said a red-faced Spc. James Williams, 23, of the 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment. “I feel like I just cleared the Empire State Building.”

He was on Kinsler’s team moving carefully through the reactor building. The enemy forces set up obstacles and picked off the infantrymen in the dark hallways, creating chaotic moments as blank rounds crashed to the floor and noncommissioned officers gave expletive-laced orders.

Gunfire erupted from the front and the rear. A few observers tapped soldiers when it was time for them to play dead or wounded.

Meanwhile, soldiers pretending to be arrested chemists screamed and moaned, as if they were being tortured. Their cries echoed.

“I kept having to stop and ask myself, ‘Am I going the right way?’ ” said Williams, an Afghanistan veteran. “I definitely felt like I was in a maze.”

Satsop’s thick cement walls forced the soldiers to use some tools they rarely have to bring out on modern battlefields. Spc. Chris Odom had to unfurl a telephone wire through the building so soldiers underground could communicate with a team that stayed above.

Lt. Col. Jeff Bryson, commander of an infantry battalion that participated in the exercise, said he liked Satsop as a training site because it gave him new scenarios to put in front of soldiers. In the past year, his troops have moved through plywood mock villages in drills at JBLM, the Yakima Training Center and the National Training Center in Southern California.

“A lot of what we have (at other training sites), you can only change so much,” he said.