Manhattan Project - K-25 Gaseous Diffusion Plant

Innovative Proposal - Cindy Kelly

Oak Ridge Presents Innovative Proposal to Preserve Historic K-25

At a meeting in Oak Ridge on Thursday, November 18, 2004, the Department of Energy’s Steve McCracken presented a breakthrough proposal on the fate of the World War II facility known as the “K-25” plant. The proposal was made to Federal and State preservation officials and other invited parties who must approve the Department’s plans for demolition of its historic Manhattan Project properties.

McCracken proposed an option that would preserve the North End of the U-shaped K-25 building and leave a ten-foot wall from each of its half-mile long arms to give visitors a sense of the magnitude of the facility. McCracken suggested that a mural of the history of Oak Ridge and the Manhattan Project could be painted along the walls, borrowing an idea from Paducah, Kentucky’s successful Floodwall Murals.

Gerald Boyd, Manager of the Department’s Oak Ridge Operations, and Mike Hughes, President of Bechtel Jacobs, were instrumental in directing staff to find a way to preserve a significant portion of the K-25 property within the funds allocated for its demolition. The meeting participants received the proposal with enthusiasm. Among those most delighted was William J. (“Bill”) Wilcox, a former manager of the K-25 operations and a Manhattan Project veteran. Bill has been prodigious in his efforts to find cost-effective ways to preserve the K-25 facility and educate the community about its significance.

The K-25 building is one of the Department of Energy's eight "Signature Facilities of the Manhattan Project." Covering some 44 acres, the K-25 plant was the world's largest roofed structure when it was completed in March 1945. The building housed hundreds of miles of pipes, compressors and diffusers arranged in 2,800 “stages” (see diagram). Uranium hexafluoride gas was pumped in a process through this gaseous diffusion cascade to separate "U-235," or the fissile isotope of uranium to make an atomic bomb.

The North End portion of the K-25 plant consists of three of the 54 adjoining buildings that contained the gaseous diffusion cascade. Under the proposal, the roof of the North End would be repaired and the interior cleaned to industrial standards so that the facility could be an interpretive center for the Manhattan Project.

The overall plan is to expand the American Museum of Science and Energy in downtown Oak Ridge to present the story of the Manhattan Project and its legacy. As a complement to the Museum’s exhibits, the North End of the K-25 will contain an interpretive center focused on the three methods pursued at Oak Ridge to produce enriched uranium for the world’s first atomic bomb as well as the scientific and technological developments that have emerged from this work over the last 60 years.

In addition to displays of original equipment, visitors may be able to walk or ride down a 327-feet long “withdrawal alley” where workers once rode bicycles to inspect the hermetically sealed pipes for leaks and perform other operations. While all of the contaminated equipment behind the alleyway walls would be gone, the view of the facades would give visitors an authentic sense for what this amazing, top-secret plant looked like---they would see the same view that top military and scientists saw in 1945! In addition, a sample of the gaseous diffusion equipment would be decontaminated for display.

The North End consists of approximately 1.4 million square feet and could serve a variety tenants to support the operational costs. A brew pub and restaurant, roller skating rink, squash and racket ball courts, bicycle rental store, or performing arts center are a few possibilities. The surrounding site could also be used for recreation similar to Knoxville’s river area.

Needless to say, the creative thinking on the part of the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Operations team has opened up numerous possibilities for the future for the Oak Ridge site. They must have been inspired by the innovative designers of the K-25 facility who were clearly not afraid to “think big.”

Cindy Kelly
President, Atomic Heritage Foundation
910 17th Street, NW Suite 408
Washington, DC 20006

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