Work crews demolished the last section of the North End of the historic K-25 Building in Oak Ridge on Wednesday morning.
Workers used a giant, orange demolition machine known as a high reach shear to bring down the four-story building, once the world’s largest under one roof. At times, the shear resembled a large dinosaur as its massive black jaws bit into the building’s 67-year-old skeleton.
Reporters, officials, and workers watched on a clear but chilly East Tennessee morning as the high reach shear sliced through vertical steel columns and tugged at horizontal beams. After about 20 minutes, the North End crashed to the ground. So did any dreams of preserving it that might have remained.
The mile-long, U-shaped K-25 Building was built to enrich uranium during World War II as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project. Its gasesous diffusion operations shut down in 1964, and historic preservationists once lobbied to save its North End.
“It’s bittersweet for anyone who appreciates what the building and the people who worked inside it did to win the war,” said Mark Whitney, manager of environmental management, or EM, for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Office. “At the same time, we have a responsibility to the American people to clean up the effects of the Cold War.”
Previous plans had called for the North End, which was at the bottom of the U, to be preserved for historic purposes. But an agreement signed in July 2012 by federal, state, and local historic preservation groups allowed for the entire building to be demolished, including the North End, while still commemorating the historic significance of the site.
Among other things, that agreement called for a replica equipment building and viewing tower, proposed a history center at a nearby city-owned fire station, and provided a $500,000 grant for the vacant, run-down Alexander Inn in central Oak Ridge.
“Unfortunately, the tower (the North End) was too deteriorated to be able to refurbish it,” said Leo Sain, president and project manager for UCOR, DOE’s cleanup contractor in Oak Ridge. He said DOE worked “tirelessly and diligently” for about seven years to help the interested parties reach the agreement signed last year.
The K-25 Building demolition project is the largest in DOE’s EM program. The project has an approved value of up to $1.4 billion, although federal officials said the total cost—including expenses for maintenance, repairs, and security patrols dating back to the mid-1980s—could come in under budget at roughly $1.1 billion.
Demolition of K-25’s north, west, and east wings is now complete, except for a small section of the east wing that has technetium-99, or Tc-99, a slow-decaying radioactive material. The North End demolition started in October.
Whitney said demolition of the remaining six units in the east wing could start in September and be complete by 2015.
About 350 workers have been involved in the K-25 Building demolition project, which started in December 2008 under Bechtel Jacobs Co. LLC, DOE’s former cleanup contractor in Oak Ridge. UCOR began working at the K-25 site, now known as East Tennessee Technology Park, in August 2011.
More than 15,000 loads of debris have been shipped from the K-25 Building. Most of the debris will be hauled to the Environmental Management Waste Management Facility on Bear Creek Road in Oak Ridge, but materials contaminated with technetium-99 could be shipped out west, Whitney said.
James D. Kopotic, federal project director in DOE’s Oak Ridge Office, said construction on the 44-acre K-25 Building started in November 1943 and was finished in August 1945, about the time World War II ended. The K-25 site was used to enrich uranium for commercial use after the war. K-25 also worked with sites in Portsmouth, Ohio, and Paducah, Ky., to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons.
“K-25 played a vital role in the Cold War, helped the nation win the Cold War,” Sain said. “It is is important to the entire nation.”
The 65-foot-high, 54-unit K-25 Building was once filled with converters, pipes, and huge compressors. It was one of five uranium-enriching buildings at the site. The others were K-27, K-29, K-31, and K-33.
Also referred to as Heritage Center, the site itself was shut down in the mid-1980s, and it is slowly being converted into a massive industrial park. More than half of the buildings there—or 344 of 500 of them—have been demolished, and 700 acres have been transferred to the nonprofit Community Reuse Organization of East Tennessee, Kopotic said.
K-33, the second-largest building at the site, was demolished about a year ago using money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly known as the stimulus act.
Whitney said demolition work on K-27, which is southwest of K-25, could start in 2014 and be complete by 2016.
Wow. What memories. I’m retired now but myself and hundreds of others crawled, climbed and walked over every square inch of that building over the years before and after it’s shutdown. It was a grand feeling knowing that you were walking inside history but the most amazing thing was realizing that the building that was once the largest on earth was built in such a short time and put on line to help end a terrible war. I salute all my fellow workers from years past and those before us who built and ran this amazing piece of engineering work. It’s REALLY something to tell the grandkids about!