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May 27, 2014 at 10:53 AM

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Seattle, Steel Town: In 'Little Pittsburgh,' an empire is built on scrap


MIKE SIEGEL / THE SEATTLE TIMES

A controlled explosion, of sorts, occurs every time a "charge" of 100,000 pounds of scrap metal is dumped into Nucor Steel's electric arc furnace, which melts steel at 3,100 degrees. The three massive electrodes firing the furnace make Nucor the largest single electrical customer for Seattle City Light, but the company has remained competitive globally by constantly tuning its operation to make it more efficient.

MIKE SIEGEL / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Where does Nucor's steel rebar -- by far its most-sought product -- go? Just about everywhere construction is under way in the Northwest, including this maintenance building that will support the operation of the Highway 99 tunnel under downtown Seattle. Over the past century, steel from the West Seattle plant literally helped build the country, providing structure for the nation's railways, office towers, freeways and projects such as the Space Needle and Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

MIKE SIEGEL / THE SEATTLE TIMES

In a building next door to the blast furnace, highly sophisticated rolling mills convert steel billets into rebar, angles, rounds, channels, flats, squares and other products. A billet is a length of metal that comes out of the electric arc furnace. The billets are reheated, then formed on these rollers into the various products.

COURTESY OF NUCOR CORP.

A 1940 image shows the Seattle Steel plant at its current location at the base of West Seattle. Since its initial construction in 1905, the current Nucor Steel has found itself increasingly surrounded by residential neighborhoods; no steel plant would be built on these grounds today.

MIKE SIEGEL / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Molten metal bars are cut and cooled as they leave the melting room at Nucor Steel. These bars are then reheated and shaped into rebar and other metal pieces. Steam produced from this process -- and sometimes the glowing billets themselves -- are visible to motorists passing over the West Seattle Bridge.

MIKE SIEGEL / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Nucor workers watch metal angle beams cool on a conveyor as they leave the roll line after being shaped from their molten state.

MIKE SIEGEL / THE SEATTLE TIMES

A Nucor worker wears protective clothing to shield him from the heat while gunning the electric arc furnace. Nucor Steel Seattle makes an array of steel products from recycled metals.

MIKE SIEGEL/ THE SEATTLE TIMES

Behind protective glass and colored panels, Shane Wheeler operates the electric arc furnace that melts the steel. When a "charge" of scrap is dumped into the furnace, a wave of intense heat is felt even through the thick glass protecting him.

MIKE SIEGEL / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Much of the Northwest's recycled metal -- everything from stew cans to automobiles to large appliances and structural beams -- winds up in shredded chunks beneath the shed roof at Nucor Steel's scrap yard. Here, the metal pieces are plucked in massive piles by giant electric magnets, center right, for transport by overhead crane to the furnace in an adjacent building.

MIKE SIEGEL / THE SEATTLE TIMES

A plume of steam escapes the plant from water-cooling equipment. Steam is the only byproduct of Nucor's steel-recycling process that escapes. Everything else, including water used for cooling, is recycled at the plant.

MIKE SIEGEL/ THE SEATTLE TIMES

Finished rebar is bundled and stored at the factory until it is sold and delivered via rail, truck or ship. Rebar ranging from a half-inch to more than 2 inches in diameter constitutes about 85 percent of Nucor's total production.

To read the full story, click here.

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