Nearly 70 years after it was built, crews are busy tearing down the massive K-25 uranium enrichment plant in Oak Ridge.
The facility spans more than 40 acres and was a key structure in the Manhattan Project during World War II.
An audit released in July 2011 by the Department of Energy's (DOE) Inspector General showed the demolition and decontamination (D&D) work is over-budget and behind schedule.
DOE officials told 10News that report prompted some significant changes at the site.
The project has been a significant undertaking for the DOE since the early planning stages back in 1997.
It's the largest demolition project of it's kind, and the first in a series of similar projects to eventually demolish and decontaminate other gaseous diffusion facilities in Piketon, Ohio and Paducah, Kentucky.
That's fitting for what once was the largest industrial building in the world.
"It's hard to underestimate just how big this building is," said Mark Ferri, Vice President of UCOR, the contractor doing the D&D work.
"It's so big that DOE has never been able to maintain it," said Oak Ridge Historian and Former K-25 & Y-12 Technical Director, Bill Wilcox.
Wilcox has been watching the D&D at the K-25 site since crews started decontamination it in 2004 and demolition in 2008.
He also watched the facility being built during the 1940s. Construction started in 1943 and only took 18 months. The price tag back then: $500 million. Today, that's about $6.6 billion.
"Separating this Uranium 235 was Oak Ridge's mission. Now days, people call it Uranium enrichment," said Wilcox.
How the government used the uranium was a secret, even to many of the workers inside. It ended up fueling "Little Boy," the first Atomic bomb the U.S. dropped on Japan in 1945, helping end World War II.
"We knew that the Germans were working on an Atomic bomb and we were bound and determined that we could get there first," Wilcox recalled.
The U-shaped facility contained three million feet of piping. That's about enough to stretch from Knoxville to New Orleans.
"If you have a problem somewhere, the operator has to get on a bicycle and ride around to the scene of the trouble," said Wilcox.
For Wilcox, memories of life inside the plant are still fresh in his 89-year-old mind.
"You also notice the noise of the compressors. They scream. They don't scream. It's a high-pitched whine though," Wilcox, who retired in 1986, remembered.
Now, nearly seven decades later, Wilcox is witnessing the end of an era that not only defined his life, it changed the world.
It took years to make sure the building was safe enough for crews to destroy.
"If you just allowed the building to sit here and collapse, you would have a breach of equipment, there would be criticality concerns, there would be migration concerns because of contaminants," said DOE Federal K-25 Project Director Jim Kopotic.
Crews didn't start knocking down the west wing until the end of 2008. That work took a year-and-a-half.
They started on the east wing in July of 2011.
Initially, the DOE thought it would cost $460 million to tear down K-25 and its sister facility, K-27.
In 2002, the DOE thought the D&D work would be done by 2008. That year the Department updated the D&D cost to $622 million for K-25 alone.
The 2011 audit showed the K-25 project could extend to 2016, and cost $1.2 billion.
Now, Kopotic says it could cost even more.
"The DOE forecast number is $1.4 billion."
The DOE agreed with much of the audits findings, and has worked to make significant changes.
According to a status report, it has added more oversight and changed contractors from Bechtel Jacobs, who worked on the D&D from 2004 until 2008, to UCOR. UCOR started work in August, 2011.
Ferri said they're also ahead of schedule.
"We are going to be finished by July of 2014. We'll have the building knocked on the ground and the waste buried where it's supposed to be," Ferri said.
"The first thing we do is we go in and we decontaminate the building to the point where we can bury it in the waste site without violating any of there restrictions. Right here, we're just doing demolition," explained Ferri.
Ferri said the actual controlling factor for keeping the project ahead of its new schedule is expediting waste removal. With a site that stretches approximately 44 acres, there's a lot of it.
"I can demo a lot faster than I'm moving the waste out. So, I only demo as fast as I can move the waste," Ferri said. "To date, since Aug. 1 we've shipped over 6,000 trucks, over 60,000 cubic yards of material."
As the building falls and the loaded trucks leave the site, the DOE and UCOR know that time is money.
"Each unit is about 400 feet that way, and a couple hundred feed that way, and we usually get a unit every 3 to 4 weeks," explained Ferri. "We're well ahead of schedule now. Two and a half units ahead."
Kopotic said the DOE and UCOR both also realize tax payer dollars are funding the work," Especially in this time now, this economic time, it's real important that we can stand behind every dollar."
Although not much of the K-25 building still stands, Wilcox has his memories, and a new mission.
"It's so sad...Surely we ought to be able to save something out here," said Wilcox.
Debate over preservation
As crews tear down more of the building each day, an on-going debate over the future of the site has not died down. But, there could be new life to a proposal to turn it into part of a National Park.
"It's a very important part of history. We're not making judgments. We are preserving a chapter that changed the world forever," said Cindy Kelly, president of the Atomic Heritage Foundation.
"I want them to understand that K-25 was a tremendous part of the picture here at Oak Ridge. It really was the biggest, most costly part of Oak Ridge," said Wilcox.
How to remember K-25 has sparked a nearly decade long debate.
"It's just been back and forth year after year," said Wilcox.
Earlier this year, the DOE released a formal plan to preserve K-25. It includes building a history center in an existing Oak Ridge fire station on the property. The second floor museum would hold more than 700 artifacts, and a viewing tower would overlook the huge building's foundation.
"The slab will remain so those that come out and look, there would be the entire footprint that would be preserved," said Kotpotic.
The price tag for that plan is just over $9 million, in addition to $3 million that the DOE has already spent on mitigation.
"The K-25 will be part of a park setting, so there won't be any structures on that," said Kopotic.
That's not the only proposal on the table. A recent National Park Service report calls for preserving part of the north tower so people could see what the facility looked like inside.
"I think that it is never too late. I think this is the first time that we have engaged with the park service for our reason," said Kelly.
Kelly's Atomic Heritage Foundation, along with Wilcox's Partnership for K-25 Preservation, have been fighting for years to keep a section of the structure standing, in addition to the National Park idea.
"We don't want to just focus on saving a little piece of the equipment of K-25," said Wilcox.
However, the DOE said deteriorating conditions present safety concerns.
A third idea: Kelly said there's new draft legislation before national lawmakers to turn K-25, along with sites in New Mexico and Washington State, into a National Park.
This comes a year after secretary of the interior Ken Salazar voiced his support of original legislation for a Manhattan Project park.
"If we get the legislation we're seeking, the National Park Service and the department of energy will be able to receive donations so that we can raise the funds from private sector and non-profits who are interested in preserving this history," said Kelly.
While a National Park could generate money to help support itself, Oak Ridge city officials believe it could benefit the entire community.
"I think the national park gives it good credibility. I think we can have a museum here or some type of element here to see but the national park really lends legitimacy," said Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson.
Crews continue to tear down K-25 as the debate over K-25's future continues. Everyone knows they're racing against the clock.
"Once we demolish it, you can't go backwards so it's important to get that final decision," said Kopotic.
The DOE is hosting a meeting of historic preservation groups in Oak Ridge on Thursday, May 17th.
It's another step toward trying to come up with a plan that pleases all interested groups.