Demolition moving rapidly at K-27 uranium site

k27patrickA safety officer overlooks the demolition activities taking place at the historic K-27 gaseous diffusion plant, the last of five uranium-enrichment facilities to be taken down at the Oak Ridge site. (KNS photos/Michael Patrick)

On a chilly morning in early February, workers maneuvered their heavy equipment to take a ceremonial “first bite” out of K-27 — a four-story, 383,000-square-foot industrial facility that once processed uranium for the nation’s Cold War nuclear arsenal and helped fuel early generations of power reactors.k27new

A small group of onlookers applauded the moment.

In the 10 weeks since then, the demolition project has progressed mightily, thanks to an experienced workforce and an unusual run of good weather in East Tennessee.

The project is already approaching the halfway point, and it looks like the U.S. Department of Energy’s cleanup contractor — URS-CH2M Oak Ridge — will have no trouble meeting its year-end completion goal.

During a visit to the site earlier this week, demolition activities were going full bore. Bricks and mortar cascaded to the ground, accompanied by shreds of steel and other structural remnants. The work formed small mountains of contaminated debris.

Demolition was coordinated with battalion of dump trucks, waiting in line to be loaded with waste. The trucks were then covered with tarps to prepare for the trip to a DOE landfill, which is approved for radioactive and hazardous materials generated by Oak Ridge cleanup projects.

Since the K-27 demolition project began earlier this year, more than 1,500 truckloads of waste have been shipped to disposal sites, Smith said.

About 90 percent of the debris is bound for an Oak Ridge landfill known officially as the Environmental Management Waste Management Facility.

The other 10 percent, which is either too radioactive or contains pollutants not allowed at the Oak Ridge landfill, is shipped off-site for disposal — mostly to a desert burial ground at DOE’s Nevada National Security Site.

K-27 is a big deal in the government’s Oak Ridge cleanup campaign that has already invested billions of taxpayer dollars.

It is the last of five gaseous diffusion plants at the sprawling site that once formed the nation’s largest uranium-enrichment complex. Demolition of K-25, the mile-long, U-shaped building originally constructed for the World War II Manhattan Project, was completed a couple of years ago at a cost exceeding $1 billion.

The takedown projects are not simple, requiring years of preparation before the actual demolition begins.

K-27, like its sister K-25 plant, contained a lot of deposits of enriched uranium in its miles of processing equipment. The fissionable material had to be removed in advance or fixed in place to prevent the uranium from creating a “criticality” accident — an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction with release of radiation — during the actual demolition.

Demolition of K-27 is the final milestone of DOE’s “Vision 2016,” and it will make the conversion of the site to a private industrial park more realistic visually and perhaps help attract new tenants.

After the old uranium-processing plants are removed, DOE contractors will focus on other cleanup tasks at the sprawling site known as the East Tennessee Technology Park.

Among the future projects will be removal of what’s left of DOE’s toxic waste incinerator, which was shut down in late 2009 after burning more than 35 million pounds of toxic waste over two decades, and a large facility that once manufactured highly classified “barrier” materials used in the separation of U-235 for atomic bombs and nuclear reactors.

A feature on Atomic City Underground allows readers to sign up for email updates and receive a notice each time new information is posted on the news blog. Just put your email address in the box on the lower right of the blog’s front page and follow instructions. Thanks to all loyal readers.