On May 15 and 16, Knoxville NBC affiliate WBIR (Channel 10) aired a two-part series on the K-25 Plant in Oak Ridge, TN, focusing on its unique history, ongoing demolition, and the debate over preserving a portion of it for posterity. The program included interviews with Atomic Heritage Foundation President Cindy Kelly, K-25 historian Bill Wilcox, and personnel from UCOR, the contractor in charge of the demolition.
When General Leslie Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project, contracted M. W. Kellogg to design a top-secret plant in Oak Ridge to enrich the uranium required to develop atomic bombs, Kellogg created the Kellex Corporation. The plant site was named “K-25” with “K” for Kellex and “25” for “U-235.” K-25 cost $512 million to build, or $6.5 billion in 2010 dollars. The mile-long, U-shaped plant covered forty-four acres. As the program notes, K-25 contained three million feet of piping--enough to stretch from Knoxville to New Orleans. When it was completed in early 1945, it was the world’s largest roofed building.
The plant played a pivotal role in the Manhattan Project, utilizing the gaseous diffusion method to enrich the uranium for the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, “Little Boy.” Between 1945 and 1964, the K-25 Plant was substantially expanded with additional, connected plants to produce fuel for the Cold War. Together, this gaseous diffusion cascade produced the majority of the enriched uranium in the nation’s arsenal. Through 1985, K-25 produced fuel for civilian nuclear power reactors around the world.
A 2011 DOE audit found that the demolition of K-25 was behind schedule and vastly over budget. Estimated to cost $460 million in 2005, the current projection of demolition has risen to $1.4 billion. The contractor, UCOR, a partnership of URS and CH2M HILL, is optimistic that the project will be completed in 2014.
But not everyone wants to see the structure torn down. On March 30, the National Park Service (NPS) submitted a report in response to a request by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) under Section 213 of the National Historical Preservation Act. ACHP asked the NPS to study how demolition of K-25 would affect its interpretation. In it, NPS argued, “Because the K-25 building has no substitute, the NPS considers it vital that the maximum practical amount of the original building and equipment be preserved to enable the best possible interpretation of this facility and its operation.” To read more about the NPS report, please click here.
The WBIR series discusses the options DOE and its partners are considering regarding the preservation and interpretation of K-25. As Cindy Kelly explains, "It's a very important part of history. We're not making judgments. We are preserving a chapter of history that changed the world forever.” Bill Wilcox highlights the centrality of K-25 to the history of Oak Ridge: "I want them to understand that K-25 was a tremendous part of the picture here at Oak Ridge. It really was the biggest, most costly part of Oak Ridge.”
To view the first part of the program, covering the demolition of K-25 and its history, please click here. To view the second part, featuring Cindy Kelly and focusing on preservation efforts and the current effort to establish a Manhattan Project National Historic Park, please click here.
DOE is currently meeting with the public and its partners to discuss the NPS recommendations and the Mitigation Plan for K-25. We will keep you updated on any new developments.