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Atomic Bomb Plant Demolition Continues

Mon, 02/06/2012 - 2:45pm
Frank Munger

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. (AP) — K-25, the world's largest building at the time of its construction in World War II, is getting smaller by the day as workers — using an armada of bulldozers, cranes and other tools of demolition — take down the brawny facilities that once processed uranium for atomic bombs and nuclear reactors.

Thousands of truckloads of contaminated rubble and debris have been hauled away from the site since demolition of K-25 began in December 2008.

Work on the West Wing was completed in early 2010 by Bechtel Jacobs Co., the U.S. Department of Energy's former cleanup contractor in Oak Ridge. Work on the East Wing is proceeding at an accelerated pace under the direction of URS/CH2M Oak Ridge (UCOR), which took over cleanup operations last summer.

The pace could pick up even more if DOE reaches a final agreement with historic preservation groups.

DOE last week distributed draft copies of a Final Memorandum of Agreement, which outlines the federal agency's commitment to spend more than $9 million on a series of projects to make up for the loss of historic K-25 — one of the so-called "signature" facilities of the Manhattan Project that produced the first atomic bombs.

Under the agreement, DOE would sponsor a K-25 History Center at the site (now known as the East Tennessee Technology Park), including an adjacent facility to house some original equipment that was used to process uranium in a gaseous form and concentrate the fissionable U-235 isotope. DOE would also provide a $500,000 grant to go toward preservation of the much-deteriorated Alexander Inn, originally called the Guest House. The Guest House served as a home away from home for such luminaries as Robert Oppenheimer, technical director of the wartime A-bomb project.

DOE also is committed to saving the "footprint" of the original mile-long, U-shaped K-25 facility in order for visitors to appreciate the size and scale of the uranium operation, which was shut down in 1963 after supplying enriched uranium for the nation's Cold War arsenal of nuclear weapons.

David Adler of DOE said the agency and its contractors will try to preserve the concrete pad underneath the four-story K-25 if that proves feasible. There are questions about whether the pad's surface and surroundings can be sufficiently decontaminated for unrestricted use by the public, he said.

The Final MOA was submitted to a number of "consulting parties" for their approval. There is a 15-day comment period to offer suggestions for changes. The key players, in addition to DOE, are the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation, the Tennessee Historical Commission and state's historic preservation officer, the city of Oak Ridge, and the East Tennessee Preservation Alliance.

Representatives of those groups and other parties interested in preservation and history gathered Nov. 17 in Oak Ridge to talk about a new agreement, and many opinions and priorities were expressed.

Gaining approval of the MOA is important for DOE to comply with the National Historic Preservation Act and to proceed with demolition of K-25. Under a previous Memorandum of Agreement, signed in 2005, DOE promised to preserve the North End of K-25 (the bottom of the "U'') as a central part of efforts to show future generations how the wartime atomic bomb activities were conducted.

However, DOE later backed away from that 2005 commitment, citing the building's structural deterioration. The federal agency said conditions were so unsafe that it made no sense to do anything other than tear it down.

The yearslong debate over historic preservation has already impacted the K-25 project, which is reported to be the largest nuclear decommissioning project in history.

Because the 2005 MOA is still in effect, DOE has vowed not to take any action to demolish the North Tower until a new agreement is reached.

In a Feb. 1 cover letter to the MOA, DOE's Susan Cange — the acting federal cleanup chief in Oak Ridge — said DOE is allowing its contractor to begin the procurement process for a subcontract to remove the North Tower's asbestos-laden siding. That action is necessary because of the long lead time necessary for such a procurement, she said, but no physical work will take place until the MOA is signed.

In the same letter, Cange praised all those who passionately participated in the long process and said the results will "commemorate one of the great chapters of American history, which took place at the K-25 complex during and after the Second World War."

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