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VO: For the last 60 years, Paducah, Kentucky, has been the point of origin for enriched
uranium bound for U.S. energy and defense. Ten miles west of Paducah, and three miles
south of the Ohio River, the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant is still active, but its process
is antiquated and the plant will likely close within 10 years.
Steve Hampson: DOE has a huge footprint here, over 3,000 acres. And it’s very expensive
to maintain, tens of millions of dollars a year just to have personnel there.
Steve Hampson: Paducah’s a city of 25,000 people. They had a workforce down here over
the last 30 to 40 years of over that’s been anywhere between 1,500 and 6,000 people depending
on what was going on so if you look at that relative to per capita in Paducah and McCracken
County, huge economic impact historically, and for Paducah to move forward they’re
going to need to replace the economic opportunity that the facility has provided.
VO: Before Paducah can move forward, its nuclear legacy must dealt with. The plant, and the
surrounding 3,000 acres, is one of the most contaminated top-secret sites in the United
States. In 1988, technetium-99, a radioactive metal, was found in the groundwater.
Lindell Ormsbee: That kicked in a whole set of federal regulations that ultimately ended
up putting the Paducah site on something called “The National Priority List of Superfund
VO: Technetium and TCE, a chemical used to clean equipment, make up 5 miles of toxic
Steve Hampson: We’ve put in pump and treat systems on both of the plumes that head towards
the Ohio River. They’re there to contain the groundwater contamination. Now, that being
said, it will still take well over 100 years and the best scenarios for this groundwater
to come back to its natural chemical state.
Lindell Ormsbee: 2001-2003, there were some very contentious issues that were starting
to develop surrounding Paducah.
Rodney Andrews: That communication issue between the site, the DOE, the site contractors, the
local community, as well as government officials, is extremely important in this case because,
quite bluntly, there’s a trust issue between the public and those operating the site. They,
to some extent, feel like the site’s being pulled and they’re being left with something
they’re going to have to deal with forever.
Lindell Ormsbee: The objective of the center to try to bring in scientists to address very
complicated, technical issues with regard to the contamination, and try and bring neutral,
sound science to the issues.
VO: Since 2003, the Kentucky Research Consortium for Energy and the Environment has gathered
scientific data, investigated remediation techniques, and talked to Paducah residents
about the future of the site.
Steve Hampson: What we were seeing for the last 20 years was just one iteration and another
of the same thing. It was all very prepackaged thinking with prepackaged outcomes and it
wasn’t really thinking on the scale of what was really necessary economically to help
Paducah move forward into the future.
VO: What was missing was a way to communicate the science of what was happening underground
to spark conversation about the potential of the site. That’s where design came in,
and why Rodney Andrews presented the problem to Gary Rohrbacher.
Gary Rohrbacher: He said, “There’s this situation out in Paducah. There’s a toxic
plume. There’s the imminent closure of the plant. Is that something you’d be interested
in?” So I said, “Absolutely,” and he said something really strong, he said that
no proposal would be complete if we didn’t consider the replacement or regeneration of
the three thousand or so jobs that would be lost at the closure of the plant.
Rodney Andrews: That was kind of the origin in talking with Gary, and could we do this
with design students as a way of looking at ideas that maybe no one had thought to look
at? They came up with very creative, very well-thought out options.
Sydney Kidd: We looked at the history, demographics of the city, everything from the economy that
would lead up to where they are today.
Rodney Andrews: You have what were once some of the world’s largest buildings now available
for use. Being on the river, one of the ones that I thought was quite interesting was,
becoming a recycling center where things that are more difficult to recycle that are normally
not done locally could be barged.
Rodney Andrews: The other one that kind of stuck out quite well was looking at building
this as a hub for high-speed rail, because it sits between Chicago and Atlanta. It used
to be a major rail center.
VO: But of all the future uses the students imagined, the one with the greatest potential
was the idea that the problem, the contamination, was the solution.
Sydney Kidd: We were hoping that looking at that the things the site has to offer right
now, including the contamination underground, Paducah could actually use that as an asset.
Gary Rohrbacher: So if there was a kind of research center and we actually used the plume
as a test subject and then we built the labs and facilities necessary to clean it up on
site, that investment would be just that, an investment, because we could sell that
technology or export that technology all over the United States and then all over the world.
VO: UK is looking at new remediation techniques like nanoparticles to break down TCE, and
algae to capture and concentrate technetium. But how will we know if these techniques have
changed the plume?
Anne Filson: The plume is underground, out of sight, out of mind.
Sydney Kidd: In the beginning it really was a bunch of data, numbers.
Anne Filson: We were able to plug in those data points and actually make that plume tangible.
Carolyn Parrish: We were able to give the plume a form. And show it visually as it has
changed over time.
Gary Rohrbacher: The idea was that in the Citizen’s Advisory Board offices out in
Paducah—they could have the 2005 plume, the 2008 plume and the 2012 plume, and the
citizens could see the effects of remediation techniques.
Sydney Kidd: We were trying to get it at a scale that was usable for people to understand
what was actually on the site. We wanted layers of information to be included for the scientists
that they could literally change out if they needed to.
Carolyn Parrish: We decided to use plexiglass and print on them because it’s a readily
Gary Rohrbacher: All of the pieces can be rapidly remade and inserted into the model.
So there’s no glue, no screws. Everything is removable.
Anne Filson: We built a toolkit of different kinds of pieces, everything from wax pencils
so you can write on the models, to markers, to measuring tools.
Carolyn Parrish: Things can be wiped clean, everything can be lit from underneath, so
it’s very visual, almost charming in a way, too, so it’s exciting to stand around and
talk about it.
Anne Filson: You have a whole assortment of people that have a stake in what’s going
on underground in Paducah, Kentucky. You give them this great tool where they get to interact.
They can imagine alternative futures.
Steve Hampson: By being able to look at the ground surface, the infrastructure of the
buildings that we’ve put there, and all the natural attributes of the area, kind of
ties everything together and let’s someone understand all the relationships.
Rodney Andrews: The work they’ve done has really brought much more public attention
to the work we are doing.
Michael Speaks: It was exhibited at an international architecture biennale in Rotterdam, The Netherlands,
and the title was “Making City” and the topic was to try to understand new ways that
institutions are working to create public-private partnerships to take on wicked, difficult
Rodney Andrews: So these really have been very good tools to explain to the public here
are the assets and here’s what these may be able to be turned into over the next several
decades to be a positive gain for the Paducah community, rather than just seen as a loss.
Gary Rohrbacher: It’s awesome to see a seasoned Department of Energy official or an agency
official or somebody that works at the plant amazed by what a 20-year-old graduate student
can do. I think that gives them confidence and they start to see how designers can contribute
to larger issues.
Michael Speaks: This project has made it very clear that design has a role to play with
the Department of Energy, and with an agency at our university research arm, like the Center
for Applied Energy Research, that it might not have had.
VO: The University of Kentucky’s expertise in design, energy and environmental cleanup,
has given the Department of Energy and the people of Paducah a new way to visualize the