Industry News | CWP

An Ohio Town Grapples with Tearing Down a Plant From the Cold War

April 30, 2021

April 30, 2021

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Industry News

April 28, 2021 | The Wall Street Journal
By Kris Maher
Photos by Andrew Spear

PIKETON, Ohio—Through the trees around her home, Elizabeth Lamerson can see part of the 70-year-old uranium-enrichment plant that government contractors plan to start tearing down this week. In this small Appalachian community, she and many of her neighbors say they are worried about any escape of radioactive material and the impact it could have on their health.

Ms. Lamerson and her husband believe trace amounts of uranium detected in their attic in 2019 came from the nearby plant. They want a tent or enclosure put around the buildings as they are taken down, and the couple also oppose a plan to store waste locally.

“It’s provided jobs and a lot of people continue to work there,” said Ms. Lamerson, who worked at the plant from 2007 to 2014. “What I’m against is open-air demolition and not storing waste properly.”

The Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon is being demolished as part of a decades-long Department of Energy project to disassemble Cold War infrastructure sites across the country. Demolishing plants like the one here, and the nation’s two other former enrichment plants in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Paducah, Ky., is costing $841 million this year.

Steve Ledingham, Jeff Walburn and Charles Lawson sort through documents related to the Portsmouth plant. Messrs. Walburn and Lawson are lead plaintiffs in a suit to stop current demolition plans.

In the fall, several former workers at the plant filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to stop the current demolition plans, among other things.

“What we want is the demolition of the plant safely, so that the workers can survive it and that the community can survive it,” said Jeff Walburn, a lead plaintiff who worked for 31 years as a security guard at the plant.

The Pike County General Health District is overseeing a health-risk assessment in a 6-mile radius from the plant in response to concerns about cancer cases, including among several former students and faculty at a nearby school that has been closed. An Energy Department official said it is awaiting the results before commenting on the issue.

The county health agency said in 2019 that nearly 600 people who live near or have some connection to the plant-filled out an online survey claiming they have cancer or other negative health effects. “Not looking into a potential cancer cluster is not an option for us,” the agency said at the time. A health agency official didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Trees flowering in downtown Piketon last week.

From 1954 to 2001, the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant was one of the three sites in the U.S. that produced highly enriched uranium, first for the nation’s nuclear arsenal and then for commercial reactors. In its early days, the 3,777-acre complex employed thousands of workers and used as much electricity as New York City.

By 2001, the company that was then contracted by the Energy Department to run the plant decided to consolidate its enrichment operations at Paducah, and the Piketon operation was initially put into cold standby. Demand for enriched uranium was low and the technology was becoming outmoded, said Don Hancock, director of the nuclear waste safety program at the Southwest Research and Information Center, an environmental nonprofit in Albuquerque, N.M.

The village of Piketon, about an hour’s drive south of Columbus, has a population just over 2,000 and a poverty rate of 29%. The uranium-enrichment plant outside town was one of the biggest engineering and construction feats in the world when it was built 70 years ago. Many residents still call it “the A plant,” recalling its central place in the nation’s Atomic Age.

The Energy Department in 2011 began decommissioning the plant, which takes years of cleaning up radioactive material. Two of three former enrichment buildings on the site are expected to be demolished by 2031. The empty parking lots and windowless buildings look mostly abandoned except for one whose outer panels have been peeled off. The building, known as X-326, was where the highest grades of enriched uranium were produced, and it will be the first taken down.

Zahn’s Corner Middle School was closed in 2019 after officials learned that the radioactive element neptunium-237 had been detected in the area. ‘We feel that the DOE contaminated the middle school and that they should replace it,’ said Wes Hairston, right, the district’s superintendent.

In addition to environmental concerns raised by residents, the Piketon project has been plagued by cost overruns, according to a March Government Accountability Office report, which said the department had underestimated the combined cleanup costs in Piketon, Oak Ridge and Paducah by $20 billion.

The government says the demolition plan in Piketon is the most cost-effective and the safest. Robert Edwards, who is overseeing the project for the Energy Department, said “more than 99%” of the radioactive material from the X-326 building has already been shipped to a facility in Nevada. Transporting the remainder of the material from the plant would have added $3 billion and seven years to the project, also leading to a reduced workforce there, according to the department.

Instead, about 2 million tons of waste generated from the demolition of the buildings will be stored on plant property inlined cells designed to last 1,000 years.

Cleaning up nuclear waste is a complex and expensive process. The Energy Department’s environmental liabilities related to long-term cleanup costs at its sites are far higher than any other federal agency at roughly $500 billion, according to the March GAO report. One challenge is taking apart the old buildings, and another is finding a place to store the waste, often over local objections.

Government contractors plan to start tearing down part of the Portsmouth plant this week.

“It’s a unique and serious problem. Most nations don’t have nuclear weapons, and those that do don’t have as many facilities as the U.S.,” said Mr. Hancock, the nuclear waste expert. Concerns in Piketon over the demolition intensified in 2019, when local officials learned that neptunium-237, a radioactive element, had been detected across the road from a middle school by a DOE air monitor in 2017. An independent study in 2019 found radioactive isotopes on surfaces in the school, in several homes, including the Lamersons, and a nearby creek.

Michael Ketterer, a professor emeritus of chemistry and biochemistry at Northern Arizona University who did the study, said that while the amounts of elements found were very small, their ratios indicate the source was the enrichment plant.

The Energy Department has said it believes that none of the radioactive elements found around the school are from the plant but are instead from background radiation, the kind that exists from natural sources and past nuclear tests around the world.

Dave Mills, whose home is separated from the plant’s waste storage site by about 1,000 feet of woods and a creek, said he has an air monitor in his driveway and worries what might come his way.

The amount of neptunium found in the air monitor at the school was a thousand times below the regulatory action level, said Mr. Edwards of the DOE.

Mr. Edwards said the department took residents’ concerns seriously and conducted its own sampling and analysis, and that it disagrees with Mr. Ketterer’s findings.

Nevertheless, in 2019 the local school board closed Zahn’s Corner Middle School, about 2½ miles from the plant, and a ballfield is now covered with waist-high grass. Some residents say the federal government has overlooked the sparsely populated community in southern Ohio.

“We feel that the DOE contaminated the middle school, and that they should replace it,” said Wes Hairston, the district’s superintendent. He said discussions with agency officials over his request that it spend $35 million to build a new school are ongoing.