A polluted former uranium enrichment plant in Piketon closed years ago but it’s impact continues to resonate through the community, including this week when a middle school was closed after traces of radioactive neptunium were found at an air monitoring station at the school.
Contamination with radiation and multiple toxic substances at the former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant led to an ongoing, multibillion dollar environmental cleanup and sickened plant workers who had to fight for compensation as they battled debilitating terminal illnesses related to their years at the plant.
A massive 2006 investigation by the Dayton Daily News found five plumes of poisoned groundwater, contamination with radiation, beryllium, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and asbestos.
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The investigation found lax safety practices, routine mishandling of toxic and radioactive material and at least 400 accidental releases of uranium gas or toxic fluorine. Toxins were dumped into unlined landfills and ditches and leached into groundwater and the Little Beaver Creek, a tributary of the Scioto River.
The plant was operated by the federal government and contractors from 1954 to 2001 and enriched uranium to high levels for weapons and nuclear submarines and to lower levels for nuclear power plants.
The plant is part of Ohio’s nuclear legacy, which also included the badly contaminated Mound Laboratory in Miamisburg and the Fernald Materials Production Center in Hamilton and Butler counties. Major cleanup occurred at both sites, and the Mound is now a business park and Fernald is a nature preserve.
A new uranium centrifuge plant was piloted at the closed Piketon plant, under construction during the period when the Dayton Daily News did its investigation. But it lost federal funding amid spiraling costs. The plant is also the site of a massive storage facility for giant cylinders filled with depleted uranium hexaflouride from enrichment plants across the country.
Now Energy Department contractors are building a waste disposal site as the cleanup of the plant continues.
The department in 2017 released a report saying that trace amounts of neptunium, a radioactive carcinogen linked to bone cancer, were found at an air-monitoring stations near Zahn’s Corner Middle School and on Monday the school was closed after concerns were raised by the Scioto County Health Department.
Reporter Jessica Wehrman contributed to this report.