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Life After Defense : More Than 50 Firms Clamor to Use Part of Rocketdyne Site

October 04, 1994|JILL LEOVY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SIMI VALLEY — Can an old government nuclear site find new life in commercial markets? In the rocky hills above Simi Valley, Rocketdyne and federal energy officials are trying to find out.

The U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Technology Engineering Center, or ETEC, is 100 acres of weeds, dirt roads and sweeping, smog-free views in the Santa Susana Mountains. Surrounded by barbed-wire fences and blue-clad guards, ETEC has been cloaked in anonymity for most of its long history; it used to be a testing site for parts for nuclear power plants.

Faced with budget cuts, ETEC, which is managed by the Canoga Park Rocketdyne unit of Rockwell International, has been forced to open its doors to entrepreneurs. More than 50 such firms have contacted ETEC asking for the use of everything from its 70-megawatt natural-gas-powered steam generator, to powerful machines that simulate earthquakes.

Most of the interest comes from firms that want to test and demonstrate new inventions before taking them to market. Among the new start-up firms that have signed agreements with ETEC is MKE Inc., a tiny company owned by a retired utility engineer and his wife who run the business from their home in Upper St. Clair, Pa. They want to test a super-efficient, non-polluting industrial furnace.

Another is Hydrogen Burner Technology Inc., a group of six professionals in Costa Mesa who say they can overhaul a conventional motor so that a car would convert some gas into usuable hydrogen fuel.

Altogether, the number of companies interested in getting a piece of ETEC bodes well for the site's future, proponents say. Manny Tessier, manager of quality assurance and training at the site, believes that ETEC, unlike so many other relics of the cold war defense buildup, will make a successful shift from government contracts to commercial business. "We are getting calls every day," he said.

But ETEC has a way to go before it's likely to replace the fat government contracts that once kept about 350 people employed. Today, only 140 Rocketdyne scientists, engineers and technicians work there.

The Energy Department's funding for ETEC, which costs about $25 million a year to operate, was scheduled to end in 1993 with the shelving of the government's fast-breeder nuclear reactor program. But local politicians, government agencies and community groups, including the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn., successfully persuaded federal officials to continue funding ETEC through 1995 to help the site become an industrial technology incubator.

The highly specialized equipment at ETEC is not something to discard lightly, say its defenders. "It would be a shame if the kinds of facilities located at ETEC fell into a state of disrepair or were not available for use. They are a real resource," said Tom Tobin, executive director of the state Seismic Safety Commission. Tobin said there are only a handful of sites in the state that have earthquake shaking tables similar to those at ETEC.

A community task force called the Community Reuse Organization has been working to market the site. So far, interest runs high, but actual revenue generated has been modest. About $2.5 million in the fiscal 1995 budget will come from new sources, including research agreements with five private companies, said ETEC site manager Robert Le Chevalier.

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The Department of Energy and the task force are also looking into possible contracts to allow companies to lease parts of the site, and they have begun a series of public workshops there.

But Le Chevalier said the real changes are still to come. Ten more research agreements with private companies may be signed within the year. One pending agreement involves a mirror-decked solar collector used for experiments more than a decade ago, which may be refurbished to produce hydrogen fuel.

And energy officials are negotiating with Exergy Inc. of Hayward to help build a $90-million full-scale demonstration power plant based on the company's new technology, he said.

At first glimpse, ETEC, which is part of Rocketdyne's 2,700-acre Santa Susana Testing Facility, seems an unlikely spot for a new generation of commercial technology. The cluster of modular office buildings on the site have the drab paint and narrow hallways so characteristic of Southern California's outmoded defense facilities.

Much of the rest of the site is vacant land. Visitors who stray far from the buildings are warned to watch for snakes.

For a short period during the 1950s, ETEC was home to a nuclear testing program for space propulsion and power plants. A small nuclear reactor on the site once provided electricity for the city of Moorpark, but the nuclear program was deemed impractical as more people moved into surrounding areas, Tessier said. Today, all that's left of the reactor is the barn-like structure in which it is housed.

The federal Department of Energy hopes to complete cleanup by 1997 of residual radioactive waste on the site left from these programs.

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