Piketon Residents Wrestle With Nuclear Plant's Legacy After School Closure

May 15, 2019

Zahn's Corner Middle School sits on a crest along state Route 220 in Piketon. Ordinarily, the school year would be wrapping up in about a week. But instead of kids, all you hear is the lonely clunk of the halyard as a big American flag flaps in the breeze.

School board President Brandon Wooldridge says they closed up early over concerns about radioactive contamination. He says they've run tests on samples taken at the school that came back positive for enriched uranium and other radioactive elements have been found nearby—as in, right across the street.

"We just found out the hit on the air monitor across the road from the school building was from 2017," Wooldridge says.

That air monitor is operated by the U.S. Department of Energy. In 2017, it picked up traces of Neptunium 237, which is radioactive. Department officials say their monitor picked up the isotope at levels far below what would be considered a public health concern.

But Wooldridge is frustrated he and others are only learning about it now.

"They are not communicating well with our school district at all," he says.

Scioto Valley School board President Brandon Wooldridge.
Credit Nick Evans / WOSU

Not far from the school sits the former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant. The facility produced enriched uranium for weapons systems until it was shuttered in 2001. Right now, federal contractors are tearing it down and disposing the waste on-site.

Locals had pushed to have the waste moved to a large dumping facility out of state, but failed. The school's closure are pushing those concerns back to the forefront.

Paige Lawless lives around the corner and works as a nurse technician nearby.

"I mean that's concerning obviously, like if the children shouldn't be there, then why should we even be living around it?" she says. “"I mean we're exposed to it, too. We're only, not even miles away from it."

Lawless wanted a house with a yard, and moved to the area about a year and a half ago. It's a rental and she’s already thinking about moving.

An air monitor near the Piketon middle school detected radioactive isotopes back in 2017, but school officials say they were only notified now.
Credit Nick Evans / WOSU

Everett Grubaugh is also worried about how far the materials will spread.

"Is it coming down this way?  I'm just a hop skip and a jump from the school," he says.

Grubaugh says he has grandkids that attend the school, and he’s really skeptical of the DOE because of how much time passed between detection at the air monitor and notification of local officials.

Most residents didn't want to talk. Many said they had family members who work on decontamination efforts at the plant. Another couple declined an interview but noted contamination is par for the course if you live next to a nuclear plant.

The Department of Energy and local officials are working to find an independent third party to do additional testing at the school. Wooldridge hopes they'll have results within the next two weeks. 

Local residents urged the DOE to halt work at the plant until results are back, because they're concerned it’s contributing to the problem. The department has so far rejected those calls.