published Saturday, December 21st, 2013

K-25, once world's largest building, demolished

The U.S. Department of Energy announced completion on the demolition of the K-25 gaseous diffusion building, which took five years to complete. K-25 was built in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project, and operated until 1964
The U.S. Department of Energy announced completion on the demolition of the K-25 gaseous diffusion building, which took five years to complete. K-25 was built in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project, and operated until 1964
Photo by The Knoxville News Sentinel /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

OAK RIDGE — The sound of K-25 crashing to the ground Thursday morning carried the echoes of 70 years.

The iconic and historic K-25 is no more. The last section of the mile-long, U-shaped structure, once the world's largest building under one roof, came tumbling down with the clanking of big equipment, a whoosh and rowdy applause from the crowd of workers and dignitaries who gathered for the final show.

The end came quickly.

"Isn't that incredible?" asked U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., as the skeleton structure crumbled in a matter of seconds.

When the cleanup work wraps up in 2014, including removal and disposal of all the massive amounts of contaminated debris, the cost of the K-25 project will be about $1.1 billion.

According to Jim Kopotic, the U.S. Department of Energy's federal project director, that's about $300 million under the most recent budget for the work -- although it's much more than what was originally forecast for what's arguably the biggest nuclear demolition project in history.

The work was complicated by national security issues -- the uranium-enrichment technology remains classified and had to be protected during cleanup operations -- and the radioactive and hazardous contamination that exists throughout the massive volume of debris created by the demolition work.

Wayne McKinney, a spokesman for URS-CH2M Oak Ridge, DOE's cleanup manager in Oak Ridge, said the project so far has generated 435,431 cubic yards of waste. Most of the described and chopped-up equipment is being shipped to the Department of Energy's nuclear landfill in Oak Ridge, but some of the more hazardous stuff has been sent for desert burial at the government's Nevada National Security Site.

K-25 was built during the World War II Manhattan Project and was widely considered one of the engineering marvels in U.S. history.

The plant, which became operational in the early part of 1945, did some of the preliminary enrichment for the uranium used in the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, and K-25 later produced much of the highly enriched uranium for the nation's Cold War nuclear arsenal.

Thursday's demolition was a sad or nostalgic occasion for those who worked at the Oak Ridge plant when it helped pioneer the nuclear industry, providing fuel for the first generation of nuclear power plants in the United States and around the globe.

The Oak Ridge plant used the gaseous diffusion method to separate the different isotopes of uranium and concentrate the fissionable U-235.

The original K-25 building, which enriched uranium all the way up to bomb-grade levels, was shut down in the early 1960s after another plant of similar capabilities came online at Piketon, Ohio. Other processing facilities at the Oak Ridge site continued to process low-enriched uranium for reactor fuel until 1985.

Since then, the Department of Energy's cleanup program has evolved and grown, and Thursday's demolition ceremony was a proud, momentous occasion. The project has employed hundreds of workers over the past five years and was carried out under the direction of two federal contractors, Bechtel Jacobs Co. and URS-CH2M Oak Ridge, which took over the work in August 2011.

Preparations for the big cleanup were decades in the making, but the actual demolition took almost exactly five years to accomplish.

On Dec. 16, 2008, a chilly and cloudy day, workers operating heavy equipment began the demolition work by taking out big chunks of the building's southwest corner. Demolition of the west wing was completed in early 2010. The teardown of the north tower, which formed the bottom of the plant's "U," was finished in January of this year.

The backdrop for Thursday's finale, removing the last section of the east wing, was sunny and bright.

The Oak Ridge plant, which incorporated miles of pipeline and thousands of processors and converters, was built in an astonishing 18 months during wartime conditions.

"I don't think we could build it in 18 months today," Fleischmann said.

Kopotic, who was federal project director on the K-25 project for the past three years, noted, "Like all big projects like this, there have been a few bumps in the road." But he lauded the workers who tackled the decommissioning and demolition job with gusto on a daily basis.

"The workers out here have done a wonderful job," he said. "When we arrived on site today, they were already out here working loading trucks."

Contact Frank Munger at 865-342-6329 or mungerf@knoxnews.com.

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