ELIZABETH A. DAVIS, LEXINGTON HERALD
OAK RIDGE, Tenn. – The federal government spent 18 months building the massive K-25 uranium enrichment plant in this once-secret city for the World War II-era Manhattan Project.
Tearing it down has been much slower.
After the plant shut down in 1987, nearly 10 years passed before work began to decontaminate it and turn it and the other buildings on a sprawling 1,500-acre site into a private industrial park.
Another decade has gone by since then and the vacant K-25 building is in disrepair but still standing.
The Department of Energy cleanup project began in 1996, and a year later the site was renamed the East Tennessee Technology Park. Since then, it has faced several delays because of funding and safety issues.
Original estimates had the project costing $5 billion and taking generations to complete. But recent work on the technology park was split into two contracts that will together cost about $2 billion.
A completion date of September 2008 has been pushed back to summer of 2009. Buildings not occupied by the deadline could be torn down to save money on maintenance.
“It was very aggressive, very optimistic,” said Steve McCracken, DOE’s environmental manager, of the timeline. “For various reasons it will take longer and cost more. It’s just huge. We run into things every day.”
“If we have safety issues, we’re not going to push the schedule to our detriment,” he said.
K-25 is the name of the site’s centerpiece, a mile-long U-shaped building considered the largest in the world when it was built from 1943-45. It is also the name of the entire site that consists of many other buildings – known as K-33, K-31 and K-29, some built after the war.
K-25 enriched uranium in a process called gaseous diffusion. The uranium was fed into the nearby Y-12 plant to make highly enriched uranium that was used in the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
Many employees didn’t know the nature of their work until the bombing was announced on the radio.
During the Cold War, gaseous diffusion was the only process used to enrich uranium, and K-25 became a forerunner of other plants.
Farmland covering 59,000 acres was selected in 1942 to be one of the secret sites of the Manhattan Project. A city sprang up almost instantly and had 75,000 residents at its peak in 1945 working at K-25, Y-12 and the X-10 reactor.
Yellow radiation warning signs still dot the premises at K-25 but the armed guards at the entry gates are gone.
Currently, 25 companies are signed on as tenants in some of the old, refurbished buildings through leases negotiated by the Community Reuse Organization of East Tennessee.
“We’d always like to have many more clients visit and we’re working diligently to get there, but we have achieved some level of success we’re proud of,” CROET President Lawrence Young said.
CROET is in charge of finding tenants, negotiating the leases and sometimes maintaining buildings under lease.
The current tenants include a waste management company and an auto part component manufacturer. A motorsports race course has even been proposed.
Companies looking at the technology park have typical concerns about locating at a former uranium enrichment site with aging buildings. But Young says contamination shouldn’t be much of an issue.
“There’s reams of data that shows a worker is going to be safe in that environment just like they would be at any other industrial or business park, and by and large most companies accept that,” he said.
Still, two of the biggest buildings on the site – K-31 and K-33 – have been cleaned out and remain vacant. BRI Energy LLC of Florida announced tentative plans earlier in May to use K-31 for an ethanol production facility.
The buildings were grouped with K-29 in a $356 million cleanup contract awarded to BNFL Inc., now called BNG America. The company removed more than 156,000 tons of material and equipment from the buildings that together cover 4.8 million square feet of floor space. It was one of the largest decontamination and decommissioning projects in the country.
Officials later determined that the 650,000-square-foot K-29 needed to be torn down because it was not structurally sound, and Bechtel Jacobs started demolition earlier this year. Completion was targeted for July.
The buildings and others still vacant could come to the same fate as K-29 if leases cannot be signed in time.
“They are big buildings and as a result are expensive to maintain,” Young said.
“It just becomes a function of economics. If we can get tenants into those buildings that would ultimately allow us to maintain the buildings then obviously we would be fulfilling our mission and the buildings would be leased long term. Conversely if we’re not successful in doing that, then the department would have to make a decision with regard to the buildings.”
Officials say they will begin tearing down K-25 next April and finish in two years.
An enormous edifice from any angle, K-25 looks like an abandoned warehouse with peeling holes in the roof and exterior walls.
Cleaning up K-25 has been slow because of the age of the building and its lingering contamination. The roof was last repaired in 1994, and water has leaked in and onto the operating floor, making it “not safe to walk on or under,” said Jack Howard, manager of the three-building project.
“This is an example of one that sat too long,” McCracken said during a recent tour.
Now workers are draining and inspecting equipment and about 400 miles of piping inside the building. They use tiny cameras to check for residue.
The K-25 building cleanup was combined in a five-year Bechtel Jacobs contract worth $1.6 billion that also includes other parts of the Oak Ridge reservation.
Preservationists, who believe K-25 has historic significance, are hoping workers will leave a building footprint of the building or the north tower that forms the bottom of the U. The National Park Service is looking at creating a Manhattan Project park including several sites around the country including K-25.
McCracken moved to Oak Ridge with his family in 1947 when his father worked with the Atomic Energy Commission. He understands the concerns.
“I think Oak Ridge has a tremendous history that should be preserved,” he said.
“You can’t leave those big buildings with contaminants in them. What we have to do is save the legacy.”
As for the future, Young hopes the changes will draw more industry and not just tourists.
“Hopefully someone drives past who may not be from the area and they see it as simply a business industrial site,” he says, “and it’s not until they read the historic markers that they find that it was once the K-25 site.”