Plant contamination worries prompts closing of Ohio school

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PIKETON, Ohio (AP) — The discovery of radioactive material in and around a southern Ohio middle school has led the school district to close the building for the remainder of the academic year to allow for more testing and an evaluation of potential health impacts.

Scioto (sy-OH'-tuh) Valley Local School District's Zahn's Corner Middle School is several miles from the U.S. Department of Energy's Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, which stopped producing enriched uranium for nuclear plants and the U.S. nuclear weapons program in 2001. A nuclear waste disposal cell is being built at the 3,000-acre facility to store radioactive debris that will be created when sections of the plant are demolished.

"Any level of contamination on or near our school is unacceptable," Scioto Valley school officials said in a statement Monday to parents and the community.

The DOE reported in 2017 that trace amounts of radioactive neptunium were detected in an air monitoring station on school grounds. More recently, an independent study conducted by Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona, found enriched uranium inside the middle school as well as plutonium, uranium and neptunium in water and dust samples collected from the community, about 65 miles (105 kilometers) south of Columbus.

Michael Ketterer, a professor emeritus of chemistry and biochemistry at the school, said contamination is widespread in the community and clearly comes from the Piketon plant.

Ketterer's findings were presented at a community meeting in Piketon late last month. The Pike County Health Department has asked the state Department of Health to assist in independent sampling and testing and that construction of the disposal cell "be stopped immediately until the extent of the contamination can be determined."

An Ohio Department of Health spokesman said the agency is reviewing existing research and sample results, the Columbus Dispatch reported . Heidi Griesmer, deputy director for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, said her agency would also evaluate the data.

"While the amount reported is far below the risk level, we have asked the Department of Energy to investigate it further," Griesmer said.

Energy department officials released a statement saying that while the radioactive levels detected are "well below established thresholds of concern for public health," it would obtain "independent soil and air quality samples in the surrounding area, and will take all appropriate actions to address community concerns."

The DOE also said it would not halt construction of the nuclear waste cell until it had better data.

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