Atomic City

With its DOE programs in flux, Oak Ridge stakes its future on reindustrialization

Nestled among dense thickets and rolling green hills a few miles outside Oak Ridge proper, the Department of Energy's old K-25 site is at once frighteningly primitive and starkly futuristic, like the hyper-mechanized setting for some post-apocalyptic nightmare.

The 700-acre compound houses five indescribably vast superstructures (including the aptly-nicknamed 'U', once the world's largest building at nearly a mile in aggregate length), each one a giant processing plant through which uranium-238 had to pass in order to reach fissionable potency.

The monoliths are linked by a seemingly endless winding chain of reinforced metal drainage pipe--the 'boom tube' that transported the seething uranium swill--and surrounded by an impenetrable maze of aging auxiliary buildings and spider-legged towers, a tortuous geometry of girders, tanks, and power poles.

But save for scattered utility workers and security guards, this once-rumbling war factory is now dormant, neutered, still; a great musty storage bin full of tainted wartime relics.

Last November, Department of Energy chieftains in Washington announced that Oak Ridge's three DOE facilities (K-25, Y-12, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory) will lose nearly 1,700 employees by the end of 1997, the result of rollbacks in defense programs and budgetary belt-tightening in federally-funded R&D. These most recent cutback figures represent only one more mile marker on a path that has seen the local DOE budget cut by nearly 40 percent between 1993 and 1997 (from $3.1 to $1.9 billion), with ensuing job reductions dropping prime contractor employment from 19,500 to well below 17,000 over the period. With weapons-grade uranium no longer in demand, K-25 will see the most dramatic reductions as DOE moves to phase out the operation by the early part of the next century.

The cutbacks have spurred a host of committees and convocations (21st Century Jobs Initiative, Vision 2010, etc.), all of them with the same plot and a nearly identical cast of local business and government players. The script, too, is always remarkably similar, fraught with references to "intellectual capital" and "high-tech human resources," with soliloquies on the need for "re-industrialization," "economic diversification," and "effective new partnerships."

More explicitly, the losses have touched off a sort of orphan's dread that this thriving little technological hub will lose touch with its economic roots, and perhaps its civic sense of self, as many of the federal programs it was weaned on gradually dry up and disappear.

"The DOE programs have been a flywheel," says former DOE assistant manager Joe Lenhard. "They are the lifeblood of Oak Ridge. Without them, I see the city as a bedroom community, and not a very prosperous one at that. Without them, Oak Ridge doesn't have a very good outlook, and neither does East Tennessee."

Atomic City--Then and Now

Despite reams of local newspaper copy on Lockheed Martin reductions and ORNL programs, a fundamental misunderstanding exists among those "outside the gate" as to the latter-day mission of the city's three federal outposts; to some people, Oak Ridge is still a bomb factory and megaton think-tank, an onerous cog in a grinding war machine.

The misconceptions are in large part a holdover from the city's founding in the early 1940s, when the Army Corps of Engineers designated a 59,000-acre section of land between Black Oak Ridge and the Clinch River for a special federal reservation. By 1943, this sparsely-populated system of rural valleys had become one of three sites nationwide that housed components of the Manhattan Project, the effort that would eventually produce the world's first atomic bomb.

Located about seven miles apart, the reservation's three worksites--arbitrarily designated K-25, Y-12, and X-10--had three distinct missions. The K-25 tract off what is now Highway 58 employed some 12,000 workers in its gaseous diffusion plant, which saw volatile uranium-235 separated from ordinary uranium-238. The Y-12 site, which separated U-235 through an ultimately less efficient electromagnetic process, employed around 22,000 workers and eventually became a manufacturing plant for the bomb.

The smaller X-10, meanwhile, was staffed by little more than 1,500. Its graphite reactor provided a means of converting U-238 into a new man-made element, plutonium-239, that nuclear scientists believed might prove a viable alternative to U-235 in weapons production.

The political and functional landscape of the area has changed dramatically since those first nuclear birthing grounds were staked out in the midst of a desperate wartime effort. What had been in pre-War times a conglomeration of crossroads communities and scattered family farms is now a city of more than 28,000; a city with a per-capita income well above state and national averages and a school system recognized statewide for its excellence; a city renown almost as much for its proliferation of high-tech private sector jobs as for the federal programs that nourished them.

And the nature of those programs has also been radically altered. Y-12, once the area's largest jobs benefactor, ceased all of its new weapons manufacturing in the early 1990s, and in 1995 employed only 5,300 workers and administrators for maintenance, storage, and weapons dismantling. Some observers believe that by the early part of the coming century, DOE officials will have cut staff to about 3,000, leaving a skeleton crew of roughly 800 production workers to maintain manufacturing capabilities in a post-Cold War era.

Even as weapons production was grinding to a halt, K-25 ceased its uranium enrichment operation in the mid-1980s. Only about 3,000 employees remain on payroll today as DOE and Lockheed seek to clean up the sprawling compound and pull out by 2006. And ORNL (X-10), once the smallest local DOE facility, is now the largest and most stable employer of the three, having long ago supplanted its defense mission with a diverse menu of R&D programs that encompasses environmental studies, material science, and even genetic research.

But the work inside the gate represents only a portion of DOE's local impact. In addition to Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor charged with running the three sites, federal contracts provide work for more than 100 companies in and around Oak Ridge. DOE has drawn high-tech and industrial companies into the area like moths to porch lights, with many firms remaining in town even after federal money dried to a trickle or disappeared outright. Boeing opened its Oak Ridge plant as part of the DOE centrifuge program in the 1970s, a plant it converted to airplane-related production when centrifuge was summarily axed. And even though only a fraction of its business now comes from DOE, Bechtel Environmental Corporation relocated its headquarters to the city years after opening its initial Oak Ridge office in 1981.

Still other companies have been launched by former DOE scientists and engineers, like so many seedlings cast off from a mother stalk of human and technological resources. Remotec, a world leader in robotics founded by ORNL scientists, and EG&G Ortec, a manufacturer of high-tech instruments, are only two of too many examples to count. "You could make up numbers to show how DOE has rippled into the private sector," says Jim Campbell of the East Tennessee Economic Council. "But they wouldn't be nearly accurate."

K-25: Rebirth Through Reindustrialization

Even with the federal presence palpably on the wane at K-25, signs of new life are yet sprouting through the cracks of the site's wizened infrastructure. Inside one dimly-lit leviathan, the relative quiet is shattered by the rhythmic ringing of hammers, by the penetrating screech of welders setting torch to metal. Those sounds are emanating from a begoggled group of workers from American Technologies, Inc., a firm that has leased 45,000 square feet of the old quarter-mile-long 1401 building for the purpose of fashioning some of the site's abundant scrap metal into containers for hazardous waste.

American Technologies is the second of four leases signed for K-25 property (with as many as five more expected within the year) as part of DOE's effort to "re-industrialize," or turn over much of the site's "underutilized" resources--125 buildings, 200 acres of floor space, thousands of machines, and more than 800 million pounds of recyclable metals--to the private sector.

It's a daunting task. With much of the site in need of decontamination, DOE's initial estimates put the end of the project perhaps four decades into the next century, at a cost of several billion dollars. "We couldn't live with that," says Lenhard. "It had to be done cheaper and faster."

That sense of urgency gave rise in 1995 to DOE's Ten-Year Plan, an initiative to put the clean-up and subsequent re-utilization of the compound on a fast track by seeking private sector input and employing aggressive marketing strategies. Enactment of the plan began in earnest last year when a special task force began soliciting prospective business tenants, conducting literally hundreds of tours of K-25 facilities.

More importantly, DOE appears on the brink of finding a lower-cost solution to its contamination woes in British Nuclear Fuels Limited, a firm that has performed similar (albeit much smaller) clean-up operations at plants in Europe. With final agreements expected within weeks, DOE officials believe BNFL, in concert with a handful of smaller American companies, will tackle the clean-up of three of the five main K-25 buildings (the other two, including the 'U', are less conducive to renovation and will probably be demolished), finishing by 2003 at a cost of $250 to $300 million.

With the federally-created Community Re-use Organization of East Tennessee (CROET) already locating tenants in less contaminated sections of the property, DOE planners have an ambitious vision of repopulating an entire 4.5-mile stretch skirting Highway 58 all the way to the Clinch River with new private industry by 2010. "Our success in doing this will be the single most important factor in keeping our resources in place," says Lenhard, who serves on the CROET board now after two years as its chairman.

The Battle for Y-12

But though the dissolution of K-25 may be widely recognized as a concession to changing times, the fate of ORNL and Y-12 is a touchier--and far muddier--issue. Assessing leasing possibilities outside of K-25, CROET president Lawrence Young notes that "several X-10 and Y-12 properties could become underutilized over the next 10 to 15 years." That's a prospect that has members of the local business and scientific community fearful, even angry, that DOE bureaucrats in Washington may not have the best interests of either the city or science in mind.

In spring 1995, DOE in Washington announced its intent to move Y-12 manufacturing resources to weapons research labs in Los Alamos, N.M., and Livermore, Calif. The announcement prompted a hurricane uprising among local DOE circles, an uprising that ultimately birthed Citizens for National Security, a coalition of more than 200 pro-Y-12 activists, most of them retired scientists and engineers.

Citizens president Bill Bibb, a former DOE assistant manager for Defense Programs in Oak Ridge and Washington, says the group found fault not only with the premise of consolidating plant facilities and weapons labs ("it wouldn't make sense technically or in terms of dollars and cents"), but also with DOE's technical and environmental analyses ("voodoo mechanics"), its budget projections for operating local facilities ("smoke and mirrors"), even its assessment of the economic impact of reductions in Oak Ridge ("haphazard, careless work").

"They were trying to play a shell game with the public," says Bibb. "They couldn't explain their own numbers. Their ultimate response was, 'Yeah, there are lots of errors in our plan, but they don't amount to much. Don't bother us with your facts.'"

According to one former DOE administrator, Citizens' efforts were supported (privately, if not publicly) on both sides of the gate in Oak Ridge, as the Y-12 tug-of-war represented the political maneuvering of a Washington DOE office heavy-laden with administrators promoted from the ranks of Los Alamos Ph.D.s.

Last year, the House and Senate Armed Forces Subcommittees at least temporarily thwarted the relocation plans by ordering the department to leave Oak Ridge's manufacturing capabilities in place, and many Oak Ridgers believe that wouldn't have happened without the lobbying efforts of Citizens and its sympathizers.

Bibb says Citizens continues to lobby to keep Y-12 resources in Oak Ridge--current federal budget projections call for stable funding through 1998--even as DOE's beltway faction continues to drop ominous hints that it would like to see weapons production facilities move to points west.

The organization also seeks to put the techniques evolved through five decades of highly specialized manufacturing to better use by establishing Y-12 as a so-called prototype center for private industry and government. Bibb explains that over the years, the facility has often been charged with producing first-run models for federal projects that presented unique manufacturing obstacles. Its crown jewels include NASA's first moonbox (for carrying moon rocks), and the Navy's Sea Wolf nuclear submarine, a project which reportedly came to Y-12 over budget and behind schedule in 1991.

When Sea Wolf left Oak Ridge on schedule in 1995, Y-12 workers had fabricated the super-quiet impellers that gave the sub its state-of-the-art stealth and built most of a quarter-scale model used as a 3-D schematic by the private contractors who would eventually produce it. "It's a niche we're ideally suited to fill, because of our assets and because making prototypes is not something the private sector likes to do," says Bibb.

"I don't have any problems with reductions in the workforce," he says. "But you have capabilities here that exist nowhere else in the United States, and I want to make damn sure that those aren't reduced. I think we've caught some ears now. We've been the policy-makers and bomb-builders all these years, and we can't be ignored."

Of Mice and Men: Technology Transfer and ORNL

ORNL's biology division looks almost out of place in its outpost on the lower-security eastern half of the Y-12 compound. Like most of the neighboring structures, the twin giants connected by an enclosed, suspended walkway are huge and dilapidated, mapped by a Byzantine latticework of pipes, wires, and stairwells.

Unlike the other structures, the two buildings' earthy red timbre lend them an air of almost congenial approachability, more akin to a couple of oversized barns than a tight-lipped research facility on a high-security defense compound.

That ambiance isn't entirely inappropriate given that one of these buildings is better known as the ORNL Mouse House--66 rooms on three floors inhabited by more than 130,000 small furry rodents, the begats of which are painstakingly chronicled almost back to the war.

The Mouse House was founded in 1948 by the husband and wife team of Drs. Bill and Liane Russell to explore the effects of radiation on humans (mice, it would seem, have a remarkably similar genetic structure). The Russells had the foresight to keep tabs on their diminutive test subjects even after the initial wave of experimentation was through, and today ORNL geneticists believe the Mouse House holds unrivaled potential for unraveling the profligate mysteries of the human genome.

"Our past research has been on obvious traits, like color, size, etc.," says Dr. Davney Johnson, stroking the delicate red-tinted fur of a tiny pink-eyed female. "Now we're getting to the point where we can look at things like learning disabilities and susceptibility to alcoholism. We're starting to learn how to identify and even change the function of a single gene."

Johnson, short and square-shouldered with bobbed white hair, is one of seven lead scientists presiding over the Mouse House, each one of whom is assisted by a team of perhaps five to seven students while a group of some 35 attendants sees to the care and breeding of the animals.

Johnson says the DOE funding she and her colleagues receive covers the bare-bones cost of care and observation. More in-depth research requires that they seek grants from the private sector and even other federal agencies.

And while ORNL funding is expected to remain more-or-less unchanged through 1998 (employment, however, will be cut), the lack of cost-of-living increases has placed new strains on its divisions, including this tiny staff operating in facilities that would be deemed antiquated by even the most frugal standards.

"There's no question that we're short of funds," Johnson sighs. "DOE has always encouraged us to seek other sources, but the urgency wasn't there before the way it is now."

"Budget constraints have caused us to lose people from places where we have enormous opportunities," says Bill Fulkerson, a retired lab scientist and president of the Friends of ORNL support group. "I think eventually the importance of things like our genomics research will be understood. In the meantime, we stand to lose the guts of some of our capabilities, and that's where the tragedy lies."

Those capabilities include the lab's Buildings Technology Center, where private firms can test the thermal efficiencies of building materials; the high-temperature materials lab, with its peerless assortment of state-of-the-art electron microscopes; the propulsion lab, where engineers are pursuing a private/federal initiative to produce a quantum leap in automotive fuel efficiency; and, in the years to come, the spallation neutron source, a billion-dollar project (set to receive its first wave of funding this year) that is anticipated like the Second Coming in the world of neutron experimentation.

And of course, the Mouse House, which Fulkerson believes may hold the most promise in terms of immediate private sector impact. Working in tandem with the East Tennessee Economic Council, Friends of ORNL last year established the Gene Research Access Corporation, the chief goal of which is to capitalize on that potential by recruiting pharmaceutical companies amenable to joint funding of Mouse House research.

"There is a great deal of interest in this gene mission," says Fulkerson. "The question is whether or not we can get competing companies to work together."

This is by no means the first time ORNL has extended a rubber-gloved hand to the private sector. DOE boasts a number of technology transfer programs, the most notable of which is the Oak Ridge Centers for Manufacturing Technologies, a joint Y-12/ORNL outreach that purports to make any of the organizations' unclassified technologies available to private companies (at a nominal fee) through a series of training programs and user facilities.

But although Oak Ridge Centers claims to have given substantive technical assistance to more than 2,000 Tennessee firms, one former DOE manager admits that ORNL's Midas touch has historically faltered when it comes to turning its own programs into gold.

"We haven't been very successful in making these [ORNL] things into commercial programs, as opposed to R&D programs," he says. "We tend to keep them in research forever. At some point, we need businessmen to come in and say 'It's time to move into production.'"

Atomic City, Future: Life After Cutbacks

Perhaps the untold story of the ebb and flow of DOE programs is the effect downsizings have had on the private sector; in many ways, the health of high-tech industry outside the gate may be a better barometer of the city's economic health than headline-making headcounts at DOE plants.

"When the cuts come down, they cut off the smaller sub-contractors before they cut in-house," says Lenhard. "Lockheed Martin and the other few prime contractors aren't touched until they've decimated the sub-contractors. You never hear that impact talked about, but it's been going on for years."

Lenhard points to a dramatic reduction in DOE engineering sub-contractors in recent years. He also notes that when ORNL lost $160 million for information systems R&D in the early 1990s, 25 computer/ informations firms packed up laptops and left town.

"DOE will release their figures, but the private companies don't like to talk about job losses because it affects their competitive position," says Rick Johnson, president of the East Tennessee Environmental Business Association, a coalition of 120 firms involved in clean-up and environmental studies. "Some of our companies haven't been affected. But others, especially the smaller ones, have cut back by 60, 70, even 80 percent."

All of which lends even more credence to fears that what might be happening in Oak Ridge is not so much a short-term loss as a long-term erosion--of its whiz-bang capabilities, of its entrepreneurial fortitude, of the gumption and gray matter that helped forge a high-tech mini-metropolis in the raw foothills of Walden Ridge.

"What we stand to lose most is intellectual talent, our base of know-how," says Campbell. "Once you lose that base, it's hard to build back up."

But according to local entrepreneur Pete Craven, also a former lab researcher, the gloom 'n' doom forecasting that attends each new round of cutbacks lacks the perspective of how those resources came to Oak Ridge in the first place.

Now active with several area economic development groups, Craven first came to Union Carbide (then the DOE prime contractor) as a co-op student in 1959, and he remembers a time when he could "count the number of firms outside the gate on the fingers of one hand." He also remembers the joint DOE and community efforts that brought in new enterprise, much of which remained in town even after the vagaries of federal apportionment dropped the proverbial carrot from the stick.

"It's always been a cyclical business," says Craven. "People come here for government work, but soon they broaden their focus and expand. It's a model that works to our favor.

"I take all of these cutbacks with a grain of salt. If we sit back on our duffs and watch, then sure--you can lock the place up, grow grass in the streets, and forget about it. But that's not the nature of Oak Ridge, and it never has been."

© 1997 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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