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Ohio middle school closed after radioactive contamination detected in building

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 5/15/2019 Bob Strickley and Chris Balusik
a view of a city with a mountain in the background: Budget cuts could force layoffs and slow the cleanup of the former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon, Ohio. © AP Budget cuts could force layoffs and slow the cleanup of the former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon, Ohio.

CINCINNATI - An Ohio middle school has been closed after officials said enriched uranium was detected within the building.

Zahn's Corner Middle School of the Scioto Valley Local School District closed Monday after the district's board sent a letter to parents informing them of the detection of uranium within the building and neptunium 237 in the air outside the school.

"It is the position of the Board that any level of contamination on or near our school is unacceptable," Brandon Wooldridge, president of the district's board, wrote.

The school grounds are within four miles of the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, which is in the process of decommissioning.

"Enriched Uranium and Neptunium are currently identified as contaminants of concern by the U.S. Department of Energy on the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant property," the board wrote. "We agree with the Pike County Health Department that the U.S. Department of Energy must take appropriate actions to ensure radiological contaminants are not being released from the site."

The plant enriched uranium from 1954 until 2001, supplying the U.S nuclear weapons program and commercial nuclear reactors. The site is 1,200 acres, has 415 facilities. Among them are three diffusion process buildings that are the size of 158 football fields, per the DOE.

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Health forum conducted last month

The Pike County (Ohio) Health District hosted a public forum April 27 regarding the concerns raised in a technical memorandum released by Northern Arizona University that, according to Health Commissioner Matthew Brewster, included sample results taken from private properties, the middle school and state waters within a five-mile radius of the former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon.

The highlights of the findings, according to Brewster, included discovery of enriched uranium inside the middle school, the detection of non-fallout neptunium in water and sediment samples taken from a private property adjacent to where the Department of Energy is constructing an on-site wasted disposal cell and the detection of enriched uranium and non-fallout neptunium on private properties and state waterways.

Health district asks construction be stopped

As a result, the health district asked the Ohio Department of Health to help oversee independent sampling and risk assessment of off-site priorities that leads within 30 days to a plan to address the contamination inside of Zahn's Corner Middle School.

It also asked that all construction on the disposal cell be stopped immediately until the extent of contamination is determined and until it can be confirmed that any further contamination can be prevented. Additionally, it asks that the open air demolition of the site's large process buildings be delayed until "it can be independently verified that demolition activities can be performed without off-site impacts."

The health district, which recently was involved with a series of meetings in Washington, D.C., with members and staff of Ohio's congressional delegation and the Assistant Secretary of Energy, has asked those members to support its requests. Also making the trip were several local government officials, representatives of the Scioto Valley Local School District and one of the fence line neighbors to the disposal cell construction.

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Independent third party to do additional analysis

In its Monday night statement, DOE said it is committed to the health and protection of the workforce, public and the environment at its sites.

"Accordingly, we are working together with the local officials and stakeholders to engage an independent third party to perform an additional analysis of the air and ground readings to properly assess the situation," the statement says. "We are confident that those findings will allay any cause for further concern."

The disposal cell, which is being created for disposal of what is being called low-level contaminated material from the future demolition of the process buildings, has been the source of debate for several years now. Several local government entities ranging from city and village councils to school boards and health districts have passed resolutions opposing its construction.

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Contaminants will continue to go offsite for disposal

Representatives of the Department of Energy and lead contractor, Fluor-BWXT, have countered the concerns, saying the site is being constructed with state-of-the-art engineering practices that will protect the local environment for centuries to come. DOE has also stated that material with higher levels of contamination will continue to be transported off-site for disposal.

A representative from Fluor-BWXT noted that DOE was handling the response to the situation.

Follow Bob Strickley and Chris Balusik on Twitter: @rjstrickleyjr and @Chris_Balusik

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Ohio middle school closed after radioactive contamination detected in building


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