PIKE COUNTY, Ohio — The United States Department of Energy has awarded $30 million to produce nuclear fuel at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon. The award comes with accolades from some and grave concerns from others.
According to the DOE, the “$30 million cost share during the first year to start up and operate 16 advanced centrifuges in a cascade” at the Piketon facility. The announcement raises concerns over radiation contamination in Pike, Ross, and Scioto counties.
DOE projects that more than 40 metric tons of high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) — a material needed to develop and deploy advanced reactors in the United States — will be needed before the end of the decade, with additional amounts required each year, to deploy a new fleet of advanced reactors. The cascade demonstration program is intended to address near-term HALEU needs and will be used to support fuel qualification testing and DOE-supported advanced reactor demonstration projects.
Sources within the DOE told the Guardian that the award is an “important step in demonstrating the nation’s ability to produce HALEU and sets the stage for larger, commercial-scale production in the U.S.” The program, the DOE said, is part of President Joe Biden’s “goal of having a 100% clean electric grid by 2035.”
The plant, which started making nuclear energy in 1954, has been met with health concerns. The plant ceased gaseous enrichment operations in May 2001 after it consolidated operations at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Kentucky. The following year, transfer and shipping operations were also consolidated in Paducah. Since then, the plant has been undergoing “decontamination” and “deconstruction” to the tune of billions of dollars, but the process is concerning to many.
In May 2019, Zahn’s Corner Middle School in Pike County was closed after radiation testing of the facility revealed radioactive contamination believed to have come from the nearby plant. At the time, Scioto Valley Local School District Superintendent Wes Hairston, in a letter to the DOE, said, “While the levels are debatable, there is very little question that the presence of these dangerous contaminants are not ’natural’.” Students were moved to another building, and the contaminated school had a fence erected around it. Officials in the small southern Ohio community have been hoping the U.S. government would allot funds to help the district build a new school, but so far, that has not happened. Last month, Congressman Tim Ryan and Senator Joe Manchin visited the former school. Ryan, a Democrat from Youngstown, has pushed for the new construction for more than two years.
The DOE says, that a team sampled the school, and found no evidence of any contaminants above background levels. Activists and others in the community disagree with the Department of Energy’s findings.
Homeowners who live around the plant and former school also have serious concerns. Many residents have purchased their own air monitoring devices to test the air; they have reported to local news media throughout the years that their personal nuclear level readings are higher than what the federal government publishes or claims to be true. The residents have long claimed that the federal government is not being transparent about the facility and that numbers are changed to keep work progressing.
In 2020, several former employees of the Piketon plant filed suit against contractors working for the U.S. Department of Energy, claiming that they had created a “dangerous environment for workers and surrounding residents.” The lawsuit at the time called the contractors who were “cleaning up the facility” a “criminal enterprise” that had led to the release of dangerous “isotopes” and “radioactive material” over the years. According to the lawsuit, cancer cases in the region are above the national average. The lawsuit, sources told the Guardian, has since been dismissed.
Many in the community have looked at the “Atomic Plant” as a staple for the region, supplying countless jobs to area residents until its closure and beyond, with the decontamination process filling local hotels and restaurants. Others have stated that the risk to safety should outweigh the financial benefits afforded by the facility.
Vina Colley is a former employee of the plant and resides in the area. She has worked for nearly three decades to expose the alleged radioactive contamination and cover-ups at the plant. Colley has been a long-time activist and was part of the independent film documentary “Death by Diffusion,” which painted the plant as an ongoing death trap. In an online statement this week about the new money, Colley said, “Workers are sick and dying from this plant. Plus, the children that live in the community are sick, and many have passed away. Why punish us anymore?”
Colley has called upon Department of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm to “do something” and to look at the reports and facts before allowing operations to resume.
“Jennifer, how’d you like to live in an area where there’s neptunium-237 in your groundwater, and meanwhile, DOE says it’s not from them, or else, it’s not hurting anyone? Look at the Ketterer/ Brewster report, specifically Appendix 2, and please, let’s have an adult conversation about who’s right, Secretary.”
DOE says “the centrifuge enrichment process is operated under vacuum in comparison to the surrounding environment. Systems actively monitor the performance of the cascade and are designed to prevent any potential environmental damage and to ensure that minimal allowable limits are maintained.”
Republican Representative Brad Wenstrup who represents the area said he is proud to fight for the funding to bring nuclear fuel back to Pike County.
“The High-Assay Low-Enriched Uranium Demonstration Project is a significant step forward for this fully domestic enrichment technology, and I am proud to have fought for funding to ensure this project continues to move forward. There is no place better suited to tackle the challenge of safely supplying our nation’s enriched uranium needs than southern Ohio,” the Congressional Representative said.
When asked about the recent efforts to restart the production of nuclear fuel at the facility, the office of Senator Sherrod Brown told the Guardian, “The senator supports safe, reindustrialization efforts and investments in Piketon and the greater region encompassing Jackson, Pike, Ross, and Scioto counties. As these efforts are implemented, Senator Brown continues to encourage the Department of Energy to be transparent and accountable for those who live in this community that has been struggling for 50 years.”
The announcement to restart production at the facility comes on the heels of a recent study by Northern Arizona University and an investigative report from local TV station WKRC in Cincinnati that revealed radioactive contaminants inside a Lucasville home, approximately 10 miles from the plant. The study released by the university regarding a home in the 200 block of Brookside Drive showed elevated levels of enriched uranium. Given the distance from the plant and that operations ceased two decades ago, the readings caused concerns.
When asked about the recent findings in Lucasville, the DOE did not comment on that particular study. Only saying that a third-party sampling effort at the school (Zahn’s Corner Middle School), was being administered through a grant from Ohio University and managed by the Pike County United Health District. That project, sources said, should be completed by the end of 2022 or the beginning of 2023.
The Guardian reached out to the White House Press Office for comment but has yet to hear back from the administration.
The article has been updated to include additional information from the U.S. Department of Energy.