K-25 Plant Named One of Tennessee's Ten Most Endangered Historic Sites

K-25 Plant Named One of Tennessee's Ten Most Endangered Historic Sites

Construction workers building the K-25 Plant

NASHVILLE, TN (May 21, 2010): The Tennessee Preservation Trust announced on Thursday, May 21, 2010, that the K-25 plant in Oak Ridge, TN, is one of the state's ten most endangered historic sites. The groundbreaking uranium enrichment facility played a vital role in World War II, the Cold War and civilian nuclear power industry.

Today's announcement underscores the need for the Department of Energy to take a second look at whether some small sliver of this facility can be saved. The plant is one of three Signature Facilities of the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge. In late January, Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, Congressman Zach Wamp, and Governor Phil Bredesen along with the East Tennessee Economic Council, City of Oak Ridge and other local organizations have urged the National Park Service to include Oak Ridge in a proposed Manhattan Project National Historical Park. To Tell Oak Ridge's Manhattan Project story, the park should have all three of Oak Ridge's Signature Facilities, not just the X-10 Graphite Reactor and Beta-3 Calutrons at Y-12.

How to preserve a portion of the K-25 plant has been the subject of public deliberation for several years. On March 28, 2005, the Department of Energy agreed in a Memorandum of Agreement to preserve the North End of the K-25 plant. The North End connects the two wings of the U-shaped plant and consists of three of the 54 identical buildings that make up the mile-long plant. However, the prospects of preserving the North End declined when a worker fell through some of the deteriorated flooring in another part of the K-25 plant in January 2006.

After the accident, the Department of Energy revamped its approach to demolishing the building to minimize potential hazards to workers. Over the next two years, cost estimates for the demolition of K-25 nearly doubled from approximately $470 million to $810 million. Recent unofficial estimates have been as high as $1.48 billion.

Beginning in the summer of 2008, the Department of Energy publicly declared that it was "too dangerous and expensive" to save the North End. On April 9, 2010, Oak Ridge Operations Manager Gerald Boyd circulated a draft Memorandum of Agreement that puts the entire historic building on a demolition course. The east wing is gone and the west wing is next. Demolition of the North Tower is now scheduled to begin June 30, 2011. 

Is it too late to save even a small portion of the K-25 plant? In a meeting last week in Washington, DC, Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management (EM) Ines Triay said the significance of K-25 to the nation's history warrants a "second look" and committed to sending a Headquarters team to Oak Ridge.

In a letter of May 13, 2010, to the director of the National Park Service, the Assistant Secretary declared that the Department of Energy accepts responsibility for owning and maintaining its historic Manhattan Project resources at Oak Ridge including the K-25 plant, X-10 graphite reactor and Y-12 Beta Racetracks. She wrote that "any [DOE-owned] facilities included in an NPS unit will remain in DOE ownership and that DOE will maintain them, preserve important historic resources at these sites, ensure visitor and employee safety, and request necessary funding from Congress to do so in the future."

The K-25 plant was a wartime gamble on an unprecedented scale. New tools, techniques, metals and instruments were created in very short order. Construction began on the plant before engineers determined which barrier material would successfully separate the isotopes of uranium. Twenty-five thousand plumbers, electricians and others worked to construct the plant to exacting cleanliness standards. Once operational, twelve thousand worked in shifts to produce a small quantity of uranium-235, the fissile isotope of uranium. The K-25 story is one of risk-taking, innovation and human collaboration.

In the end, the plant proved to be essential to the production of the highly enriched uranium used for the atomic bomb "Little Boy" dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. During the Cold War, K-25 was a major supplier of enriched uranium for the nation's nuclear arsenal. It served as a model for other Cold War enrichment facilities and contributed to civilian nuclear power efforts domestically while supplying uranium fuel for nuclear power reactors worldwide. The plant was permanently shut down in 1987. Over time, the roof deteriorated and the plant suffered water damage but fundamentally the concrete-and-steel structure remained sound.

The Tennessee Preservation Trust's Ten in Tennessee list highlights endangered sites across the state. Since the creation of its program in 2001, only three listed sites have been lost. The inclusion of K-25 recognizes the importance of preserving a portion of the plant and its history.

In the process of demolition, a sliver of the east wing was left standing in January 2010 at least long enough to be captured in a photograph by the Knoxville News Sentinel. If a contractor deliberately left a portion, engineers could reinforce the structure and architects could recreate missing portions. Saving a portion of the steel structure, an alley way, walls, piping and some of the equipment would provide sufficient basis for interpreting the whole. A more extensive facade and markings of the mile-long footprint could provide a sense of the height and grand scale of the structure. Eventually, visitors could enter an original doorway into the "biggest secret" of the Manhattan Project.

Studies indicate that if you preserve it, they will come. According to a study by PGAV Destinations, 80 percent of tourists prefer to visit places that are "authentic." Access Museum Services estimated that 200,000 or more visitors a year would come to see the original K-25 plant for a first-class immersive experience.

British experts assessed the chances of building an industrial-scale gaseous diffusion plant that successfully produced enriched uranium for use during the war as "one in a thousand." The chances of saving a portion of the K-25 building sometimes seem like one in a thousand. But the Tennessee Preservation Trust's nomination and Assistant Secretary Ines Triay's personal interest improve these chances significantly.

The time to act is now. Thanks to the Tennessee Preservation Trust for highlighting the plight of the K-25 plant and to Assistant Secretary Triay for her vision and leadership in preserving this important monument to the Manhattan Project and world history.

To see coverage of this story in The Oak Ridger, click here.