Source: Oak Ridge Today | Senator Lamar Alexander | September 1, 2016
This week marked the end of an era. The last of the five uranium enrichment buildings in Oak Ridge has been cleaned up, making land available for new companies and new jobs coming to East Tennessee.
Tennessee should be extremely proud of the men and women who have worked for more than a decade to complete the demolition and cleanup at the East Tennessee Technology Park.
The story of how these buildings first came to be built is by now a familiar one. In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Senator Kenneth McKellar, the Tennessean who chaired the Appropriations Committee, to hide $2 billion for a secret project to win World War II. McKellar replied, “Mr. President, I have just one question: Where in Tennessee do you want me to hide it?”
They hid it in Oak Ridge, on 2,200 acres along the Clinch River, where they quietly built K-25, the largest building in the world, to enrich uranium through gaseous diffusion—a complicated and now mostly obsolete process.
In her book called “The Girls of Atomic City,” Denise Kiernan writes that the area was chosen for a variety of things—proximity to railroads, distance from the coasts and from attack, the “towering guard” of the Smokies, the energy from Norris Dam, and even the mild climate, so the buildings could go up quickly.
That climate has also helped the buildings come down quickly—in relative terms.
The gaseous diffusion buildings were used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors from 1945 until the mid-1980s. Cleanup of the site began in 1989.
As chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that provides funding and oversight for cleanup at U.S. Department of Energy sites across the country, I have made cleanup at Oak Ridge a priority. This year, we were able to secure about $440 million for cleanup work at East Tennessee Technology Park, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the Y-12 National Security Complex.
Since 2011, cleanup projects in Oak Ridge have averaged about five months ahead of schedule and have been under budget. There have been over six million hours of work without one lost work day due to injury, and the end result is that every taxpayer dollar spent on the cleanup work today generates $1.11 worth of actual work because we are getting projects done faster and cheaper.
The Department of Energy, the contractors, and the local community have worked together to get a result that cleans up the site, and help brings new jobs to East Tennessee. In all, there are over 1,700 people directly supporting the cleanup effort, either as federal employees or contractors. In addition, there are 175 jobs that have been created by the companies that moved into parts of the East Tennessee Technology Park that have been cleaned up and turned over to the private sector.
When issues have arisen, they have been resolved by people working together to get a result—not by the courts—and that has allowed more money to be spent on cleanup, not legal fees and court costs.
Thanks to years of hard work and a lot of effort, more than 720 acres of land and 332,000 square feet of building space has been made available for new economic development leading to an estimated $100 million private investment in technology, industry, and renewables.
For example, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory operates the Carbon Fiber Technology Facility, a 42,000-square-foot innovative technology facility on land that was transferred from the Environmental Management program. Multiple private industries have located on transferred property. Two speculative buildings have been built by the Community Reuse Organization of East Tennessee in partnership with the City of Oak Ridge: a $1.2 million, 50,000-square-foot facility, and a 17,200-square-foot building. Three solar energy production sites have been developed on land formerly owned by the Department of Energy, and these alternative energy projects are producing more than 1.6 megawatts of electricity, which is fed into the Tennessee Valley Authority power grid.
I often refer to the area along the four-lane highway from the Knoxville airport to Oak Ridge as the “Oak Ridge Corridor” because the area’s scientific brainpower, energy research, and technological capabilities are some of the best in the world. The success of Oak Ridge’s cleanup efforts is further evidence of the brainpower, research, and resources in the area.
Completion of the demolition of the gaseous diffusion buildings is an important milestone, but not a mission completed. We still have more work to do. Vision 2020 is next. It will complete the remainder of the cleanup at the East Tennessee Technology Park.
Longer term, cleanup work will continue at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and transition to Y-12, where we will make sure mercury contamination is addressed.
The good work done so far puts us on a path toward meeting those goals, and I will continue to make cleaning up sites in Oak Ridge a priority so we can bring even more good-paying jobs to East Tennessee.
Lamar Alexander is a U.S. senator from Tennessee.