OAK RIDGE, Tenn. — The Department of Energy and the City of Oak Ridge earlier this month launched a project to preserve the history of the former Oak Ridge Gaseous Diffusion Plant with a tour of the K-25 History Center’s future home in the Oak Ridge Fire Station Number Four building at the East Tennessee Technology Park.
The original K-25 gaseous diffusion building contributed to the creation of the first atomic bomb. Nearly 36,000 people worked at K-25 during the Manhattan Project.
The Department of Energy added more facilities to the Oak Ridge Gaseous Diffusion Plant during the Cold War as the United States raced to build a nuclear stockpile to deter an attack by the Soviet Union.
“(The history centre) is a deserving tribute to the thousands at K-25 who helped win World War II and more importantly, The Cold War,” said Oak Ridge Mayor Warren Gooch.
The history centre will feature artifacts from the Manhattan Project and Cold War eras, a theatre and a viewing tower where visitors can see the K-25’s concrete footprint from above.
At four stories and nearly a mile long, it was the largest building of its time under one roof. K-25 operators used bicycles to get from one end of the building to the other throughout the day. One of those bicycles will be on display at the history centre.
It will also include a digital memory zone where people who worked at the plant can sit and record an oral history.
At the front of the centre will be a special exhibit remembering the Wheat community that first inhabited the area the plant was built on.
“If you were here 75 years ago, you’d probably be standing in the middle of a large peach orchard,” said Mick Wiest of the Oak Ridge Heritage and Preservation Association on Oct. 19. The Wheat community was famous for their peaches.
Wiest told the story of a young man who fought in World War II and came home to find his neighbourhood had been replaced by what would become the Oak Ridge Gaseous Diffusion Plant, its residents uprooted by the Department of Energy.
“We never want to forget the sacrifice those people made, and now we have a way to remember it for all time,” Wiest said.
The construction of the K-25 History Center is part of a 2012 memorandum of agreement that allowed the Department of Energy to demolish K-25.
Wiest said it took the DOE and historic preservation groups 10 years of meetings — some contentious — to come to the agreement. The agreement also required the Department of Energy to construct the viewing tower, build a replica of a K-25 equipment building, and save the historic Oak Ridge Alexander Inn.
The National Parks Service is assisting with the history centre project, but the centre will not officially be a part of the Manhattan Project National Historic Park, only the concrete footprint of K-25 will receive that designation.
The history centre will be one of the first new ventures at the East Tennessee Technology Park, which is in the process of being cleaned up and transferred out of DOE liability for reindustrialization and conservation.
Right now the Community Reuse Organization of East Tennessee and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency own about half of the 2,200-acre park.
Some parcels of land that could not be reindustrialized have been converted into solar farms and there are a few hiking trails already in use.
The National Parks Service even hosted an eclipse viewing party at the site in August.
Cleanup contractor UCOR’s president Ken Rueter said the recreational interest is a rare sight in the DOE cleanup world.
“There’s just not as much interest in it,” Rueter said.
“And you wouldn’t naturally conclude that people who do environmental cleanup for a living would be able to do this.”