OAK RIDGE, Tenn. – A decades-long effort to clean and transform the former Oak Ridge Gaseous Diffusion Plant is complete, resulting in a historic first-ever removal of a uranium enrichment complex.
“It’s hard to convey the magnitude of what our workforce just achieved,” said Jay Mullis, manager of DOE’s Oak Ridge Office of Environmental Management. “They safely took down hundreds of deteriorated and contaminated structures, some of which were the largest buildings in the world. We’ve now arrived at the finish line on this marathon effort, and I couldn’t be more proud of the skilled, talented men and women who made this accomplishment possible for the first time ever.”
In the early 1940s, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began acquiring farmland that would later become Oak Ridge, few could envision the massive facilities that would be constructed there, including the largest building in the world at the time. Using the code name K-25, the site produced enriched uranium to power the weaponry that ended World War II.
Renamed the Oak Ridge Gaseous Diffusion Plant, the site expanded with new buildings constructed to produce enriched uranium for defense and commercial purposes and later to explore new enrichment technologies. Those operations continued until the mid-1980s, and the site was shut down permanently in 1987. This left hundreds of contaminated facilities that had to be remediated and removed — among them five large gaseous diffusion enrichment buildings, including the mile-long, U-shaped K-25 Building.
By the 1990s, EM formed a plan to clean up and transform the site into an asset that could generate new economic opportunities for the community. In 1996, the site was renamed the East Tennessee Technology Park to reflect its new trajectory.
The first major structure to be removed was one of the first built at the site — the K-1001 Administration Building. Containing more than two acres of floor space, the four-wing structure included EM and contractor offices. It was demolished in 1999.
Through the next decade, workers took down various facilities, including a large cafeteria, a medical facility, and laboratories. In 2006, the K-29 facility, built in 1951, was the first of the five massive enrichment facilities to fall. Its teardown paved the way for the demolition of the other gaseous diffusion buildings: K-25, K-27, K-31, and K-33. K-27 was the last to come down, in 2016.
The largest and most challenging demolition project was the K-25 Building. Demolishing the four-story, 44-acre facility took years of planning as workers removed uranium deposits throughout the facility and addressed other contaminants. It had degraded over the years, with rainfall often infiltrating and deteriorating the structure. Workers began tearing into the building in 2008, and demolition was completed five years later.
EM’s goal to complete demolition of all five gaseous diffusion buildings by 2016, called Vision 2016, was successfully realized. Then EM set out for its next goal, Vision 2020, to take down the remainder of the facilities in the former enrichment complex by the end of 2020. Recent notable demolition activities that led to this achievement include:
- TSCA Incinerator: This facility operated from 1991 to 2009, treating 35.6 million pounds of waste. It was demolished in 2018. The one-of-a-kind Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) Incinerator was named after a law Congress passed in 1976 that addresses the production, importation, use, and disposal of specific chemicals, including polychlorinated biphenyls.
- Central Neutralization Facility: This sprawling complex previously treated the site’s industrial wastewater. With new treatment systems installed, this facility was no longer needed and was demolished in 2018.
- K-1037 Barrier Production Facility: This building was constructed in 1945. Through the years, it was expanded to a total of 380,000 square feet. It was originally used as a warehouse, and later produced the barrier material used in the gaseous diffusion process. The facility was shut down in 1982 and demolished in 2019.
- Poplar Creek cleanup: The Poplar Creek area housed some of the most contaminated facilities at the site and posed significant cleanup challenges. When operational, these facilities supported the uranium enrichment buildings. Demolition of these 11 structures was completed in 2019.
- Centrifuge Complex: This complex was built in stages to develop, test, and demonstrate centrifuge technology for uranium enrichment. The last of these facilities ceased operation in the mid-1980s. Workers completed demolition of this four-building, 235,000-square-foot complex earlier this year.
Since cleanup operations began, hundreds of buildings measuring more than 13 million square feet have been demolished. More than 1.7 million cubic yards of waste — enough to fill up 515 Olympic-size swimming pools — have been disposed, including nearly 30,000 truckloads of soil. This progress has paved the way for EM to transfer 1,300 acres of land back to the community for economic development and another 100 acres have been set aside for historic preservation.