Note: This story was updated at 9 a.m. Feb. 4.
Two federal agencies have agreed to build a K-25 Viewing Platform at the historic site in west Oak Ridge that was used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants during World War II and the Cold War. The design is expected to be complete in March and the building completed by the end of 2023.
The construction agreement for the viewing building at the former K-25 site was signed by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Office of Environmental Management and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The viewing platform will give visitors a view of the large 44-acre footprint of the former K-25 Building. K-25, which was the world’s largest building, was erected during World War II as part of the Manhattan Project to help enrich uranium for the world’s first atomic bombs during World War II. The K-25 Building was demolished in 2013, and many other structures at the site have been removed as the federal government turns over property for private development.
The K-25 Building site itself is now part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. That project commemorates the workers, equipment, and processes used during the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Hanford, Washington; and Los Alamos, New Mexico.
The K-25 Viewing Platform and associated exhibits are the final components of a multi-project agreement that the Oak Ridge Office of Environmental Management signed in 2012, clearing the way for demolition of the North Tower of the mile-long, U-shaped K-25 Building. The projects commemorate the history of the K-25 site, which has also been known as the Oak Ridge Gaseous Diffusion Plant.
“The new facility (the viewing platform) will be adjacent to the recently opened K-25 History Center and provide visitors a complete view of the building’s massive 44-acre footprint,” a press release said. “The agreement also involves installing 12 wayside exhibits around K-25’s footprint.”
“We are grateful for the emergence of this new partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that allows us to move forward on this project,” said OREM Acting Manager Laura Wilkerson. “The community has been excited about the idea of this facility, and we are looking forward to fulfilling our commitment through the assistance and special skills the Corps provides.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will begin by performing a constructability review of the design, the press release said. Once that is completed and the design finalized—expected in March—USACE will put the project out for bid and will manage the selected construction subcontractor. Construction is expected to begin by this fall with the viewing platform completed by the end of 2023, the press release said.
A cost estimate could be available after the bids are received, said Ben Williams, spokesperson for the DOE Oak Ridge Office of Environmental Management.
“We value our continued partnership with the Department of Energy and look forward to managing this construction project,” said Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Sahl, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District commander. “The Nashville District was involved with the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge between 1943 and 1945, so we are excited to be part of this project that draws attention to a larger national historic preservation effort to commemorate the importance of the historic K-25 building.”
While the K-25 History Center focuses on the men and women who built and operated the Oak Ridge Diffusion Plant during the Manhattan Project and Cold War, the K-25 Viewing Platform will help visitors understand the scope and magnitude of the site, the press release said.
Officials celebrated the opening of the K-25 History Center in 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down activities across the world. The K-25 History Center was another part of the 2012 agreement, and so was a grant to preserve the historic Alexander Inn, which is now an assisted living center in central Oak Ridge.
Earlier historic preservation plans had envisioned an Equipment Building at the site, but the cost estimates exceeded the money that was available for historic preservation commitments at K-25, Williams said. The original design also presented increased maintenance responsibilities and safety considerations.
However, the revised plans for the Viewing Platform announced this week still include information, displays, and exhibits for visitors about the process gas equipment that was used in Building K-25, Williams said.
Williams said the parties that signed the 2012 agreement have concurred with the revised approach for the Viewing Platform.
When constructed in 1944, Building K-25 was the largest structure in the world, and it “carried an equally immense and important mission to help end a global war by producing uranium for the world’s first nuclear weapon (Little Boy),” the press release said. “Yet despite its size and urgent work, the public would not learn of its existence in Oak Ridge until the end of World War II.”
Uranium enrichment operations ceased in 1985, and the site was permanently shut down in 1987. Afterward, DOE committed to and began a massive environmental cleanup effort to transform the site into a multi-use industrial park for the community. That effort involved tearing down five massive enrichment facilities, including the K-25 Building, and 500 other structures that supported operations at the site, the press release said.
OREM and its contractor UCOR completed demolition of the K-25 Building in 2013 and finished all demolition at the site in 2020.
“That accomplishment marked the first time in the world an enrichment complex has been taken down,” the press release said. “OREM and UCOR completed the effort four years ahead of schedule, saving taxpayers $500 million.”
The transformed site, now called the East Tennessee Technology Park, already has numerous private businesses onsite along with large conservation areas and a national park. The K-25 Building footprint is within the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, a unit of the National Park Service that contains sites in Oak Ridge, Hanford, and Los Alamos.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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