Zahn’s Corner Middle School was forced to close early for the summer due to high concentrations of uranium found inside. Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, a nuclear plant in Pike County, Ohio, is the only known source of the high levels of uranium and neptunium-237 found in the school and air.
The high levels were discovered by a U.S. Department of Energy air monitor detection building directly adjacent to the middle school.
The closure has left parents and teachers in the Scioto Valley Local School District extremely concerned. Earlier this week, Ashley Day, a parent in the school district, was met at home by her son Kendon with some interesting news. Kendon informed his mother that the school will be closed for the rest of the academic year.
“I felt anxiety, anger, and paranoia all at once,” she told NBC News. “It’s so scary that my child has been exposed to this because I have no idea how it’s going to affect him.”
The now out-of-operation Portsmouth plant was built as part of the United States’ nuclear build up against the Soviet Union in the Cold War. It had been active for almost 50 years, from 1954 to 2001. Following the end of the Cold War, it was used to refine uranium to support other nuclear plants, but it has not been in use for 18 years.
In a letter released on Zahn’s Corner Middle School’s Facebook page, Brandon Wooldrige, president of the local school board, said that it’s “the position of the board that any level of contamination on or near our school is unacceptable.”
He also expressed agreement with the Pike County Health Department, which has urged the U.S. Department of Energy to “take appropriate actions to ensure radioactive contaminants are not being released from the site.”
The plant has been leaking radiation into the air for some time, according to a survey done by Northern Arizona University. The university conducted a “public interest study” in 2017 to investigate possible sources of uranium and other contaminants in environmental samples from the vicinity of Piketon, the town where the school is located.
It was also in 2017 that the U.S. Department of Energy began breaking down the plant and disposing of the two million cubic yards of waste that would be generated from the plant’s decontamination and decommissioning process.
Jennifer Chandler, a Piketon councilwoman, told CNN that “construction activities, including site clearing and roadway construction, began around 2017, and that’s when the monitors detected contamination.” She also said that she wonders if it has caused a cancer cluster in the area, since five students in the Scioto Valley Local School District have been diagnosed with cancer in recent years, and three of them died.
Superintendent Todd Burkitt told CNN affiliate WLWT in Cincinnati that “there’s just not a playbook when dealing with this, and we’re kind of writing the script as we go.”
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Mitch Shirley is a reporter for The Ohio Star and Battleground State News. Emails tips to [email protected]