In May 2019, Zahn’s Corner Middle School in Pike County, Ohio, located within four miles of the former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant (PORTS), was closed after local officials reported enriched uranium and transuranic radionuclides were detected inside the school and at outside air monitors.
Now, Cincinnati’s WKRC Local 12, a news affiliate of Sinclair Broadcast Group, is reporting that a private house in Lucasville, Ohio, 10 miles from the PORTS site, has been contaminated with enriched uranium.
NAU study: The Local 12 story cites an October 18 report by Michael Ketterer, professor emeritus of chemistry and biology at Northern Arizona University, which found elevated levels of U-235 and U-234 in dust samples taken from the home’s attic. The report found that the uranium concentrations were elevated by a factor of 3.4, compared with natural levels. “The PORTS plant is the imputed, obvious source of these elevated total U concentrations,” Ketterer wrote in the report.
The Portsmouth plant enriched uranium to support the nation’s nuclear weapons program and, in later years, enriched uranium used by commercial nuclear reactors. Enrichment operations were discontinued in 2001, and the plant has been undergoing decontamination and decommissioning since 2011.
DOE response: In addition to testing the Lucasville home, Ketterer and NAU performed the testing that found the elevated levels of contamination at Zahn’s Corner Middle School in 2019. As with the house, Ketterer concluded that PORTS was the source of the school’s contamination. The school remains closed.
That year, in response to community concerns, the Department of Energy collected samples in and around the school for analysis by the Savannah River National Laboratory. The samples were collected by a team of certified health physicists from DOE national labs and the National Nuclear Security Administration.
A July 2019 report by the DOE found that only naturally occurring radionuclides were found in any of the samples collected. Likewise, none of the samples indicated any excess radiological risk above background to the public.
The DOE told Local 12 that it was performing an independent review of the sample results from the Lucasville home.
From the Congressman to the DOE: On October 31, the Pike County News Watchman reported that Rep. Tim Ryan (D., Ohio) wrote a letter to energy secretary Jennifer Granholm seeking transparency on issues pertaining to PORTS and its possible release of contamination. In the letter, Ryan noted that, compared with the rest of the United States, cancers occur at higher rates in Pike County and are increasing.
Ryan also claimed that D&D activities at the site are having a direct effect on radioactive contamination found in the area, noting that detected levels of enriched uranium dropped when demolition was suspended in March 2020 due to COVID and returned when work resumed in June of that year.
“While DOE insists the levels are within acceptable limits, the decrease and then increase in contamination detections on air monitors is evidence that hazardous radiological material is escaping this site,” Ryan wrote.