NPS Recommends Preserving a Portion of K-25

NPS Recommends Preserving a Portion of K-25

Lab technicians at work in the K-25 Plant

In a 26-page report released on March 30, 2012, the National Park Service argues that the nation has a vital interest in preserving a portion of the K-25 plant. The mammoth, mile-long K-25 plant is an icon of the Manhattan Project and Cold War for which there simply is “no substitute.”

This report is the latest development of the nearly decade-long process under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act to decide which Manhattan Project properties should be preserved at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. On November 17, 2011, the Department of Energy (DOE) convened representatives of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), Tennessee Historical Commission, and other parties to present their mitigation plans for the K-25 plant.

At that meeting, Oak Ridge Operations manager John Eschenberg announced DOE’s intention to demolish all of the K-25 plant. Eschenberg said that saving a piece of the K-25 plant would be “imprudent” as the work would be “unsafe” and “too costly.” Over half of the K-25 plant and more than 100 other Manhattan Project buildings at the K-25 site have already been demolished.

In January 2012, under Section 213 of the National Historic Preservation Act, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation requested that the National Park Service (NPS) assess how the plant’s complete demolition could affect the interpretation of the property. The National Park Service report made its case clear. “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.”

The preferred recommendation would preserve two cells of equipment, “the absolute minimum amount of equipment needed to properly illustrate and interpret the gaseous diffusion process.” Under this scenario, approximately one-twelfth of the original North End Tower and less than 0.3 percent of K-25’s original converters would be retained. This is consistent with the recommendations of the Degenkolb Engineers study that the Department of Energy commissioned in 2010.

For members of the public, visiting this historic property will give them a unique sense of “being there.” For scholars, the remaining portion will be the sole surviving facility available for hands-on historical interpretation and research of the gaseous diffusion process. In addition, the National Park Service recommends preserving the exterior wall of the North End Tower to give a sense of the mass and volume of the building.

Finally, the report calls for the design of a complete and comprehensive interpretive plan situating K-25 within the broader Oak Ridge Reservation’s cultural landscape and within World War II and postwar contexts, both military and civilian. The report also recommends full documentation of K-25 and several other Oak Ridge Reservation buildings, including a written description and history, archival-quality photographs, historic photographs, and drawings.

With the prospect that Congress may designate a Manhattan Project National Historical Park this year, the National Park Service’s recommendation to preserve a piece of K-25 and interpret the Manhattan Project and Cold War history is compelling. As the report states, “While the present physical condition of the building may argue for its total demolition, the tremendous historical significance of K-25 argues for the opposite.”

The Section 106 process provides that any signatory to the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) may propose to the other Signatories that the MOA be amended. In this case, the Signatories are the DOE’s Federal Preservation Officer, Tennessee State Historical Preservation Officer, and the Executive Director of the ACHP. The Signatories may propose to terminate the current MOA and initiate a process to develop a new MOA or request comments of the ACHP pursuant to 36 CFR 800.7(c).  The resulting comments from the Council shall be taken into account and responded to by the Secretary of the Department of Energy under 36 CFR 800.7(c)(4).

Whatever the ACHP and other Signatories decide to do in response to the National Park Service report, the Department of Interior has made a clear and forceful case for preserving a portion of the K-25.