The former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant is seen in this Sept. 26, 2006, photo. At bottom right, center and left are seen thousands of cylinders containing radioactive waste.
Photo: Chris Stewart
Photo: Chris Stewart

Dayton Daily News investigation found contamination, sick workers at Piketon plant

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.

Razor wire surrounds a building at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant near Piketon. High security was necessary because the plant stored high enriched uranium for weapons.
Photo: Jan Underwood

A massive 2006 investigation by the Dayton Daily News found five plumes of poisoned groundwater, contamination with radiation, beryllium, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and asbestos.

RELATED: Piketon: A troubled past

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.

Workers clean up following the March 1978 rupture of a 14-ton cylinder of liquid uranium hexafluoride that was dropped at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion plant. The subsequent leak nearly emptied the cylinder, releasing 21,125 pounds of radioactive, toxic uranium hexafluouride.
Photo: U.S. Dept. of Energy

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.

RELATED: Complicated claims process often ends in rejections

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.

ARCHIVE GRAPHIC/JOHN HANCOCK, 2006: The Mound Laboratory, Miamisburg, 1948-1993; Feed Materials Production Center, Near Fernald, 1951-1991; Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, Near Piketon, 1954-2001.

RELATED: WATCH: The amazing transformation of the historic Mound Labs in Miamisburg, from atomic triggers to office space

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.

USEC employees test individual centrifuge machines during the spring of 2005 in Oak Ridge in preparation for testing numbers of centrifuges in a cascade formation in Piketon. The project later lost federal funding. USEC Inc. photo
Photo: Staff Writer

RELATED: Groups fear Piketon will become dumping ground

Now Energy Department contractors are building a waste disposal site as the cleanup of the plant continues.

In 2006 a Dayton Daily News investigation found massive contamination had occurred at the site of the former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, which enriched uranium near Piketon from 1954 to 2001. This graphic depicts those findings. STAFF
Photo: Staff Writer

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.

RELATED: Our investigation of contamination at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant

Piketon: A troubled past 

Complicated claims process often ends in rejections

Groups fear Piketon will become dumping ground  

Costly centrifuge plan key to Piketon revival

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