Source: https://www.nbcnews.com, May 16, 2019
By: Safia Samee Ali
Ashley Day has always worried about the health risks of living a few miles from a defunct nuclear power plant in Piketon, Ohio. So, when her son Kendon came home Monday and told her school had been canceled for the rest of the year, she had a sinking feeling there was a connection.
A few hours later, her fears were confirmed: The Scioto Valley Local School District declared in a letter that Zahn’s Corner Middle School would be shut down for the remainder of the school year because of possible radioactive contamination from the nearby Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, which the federal Department of Energy is in the process of decommissioning.
“I felt anxiety, anger, and paranoia all at once,” she said. “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 district said enriched uranium and neptunium-237, highly carcinogenic radioactive chemicals, were detected not only inside the building but also at a Department of Energy air monitor adjacent to the school.
“It is the position of the Board that any level of contamination on or near our school is unacceptable,” board President Brandon Wooldridge wrote in a letter shared on Facebook. He also admonished the Department of Energy, urging it to “take appropriate actions to ensure radiological contaminants are not being released from the site.”
The former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant was one of three large plants in the United States that supported the nation’s nuclear weapons program. The plant produced enriched uranium from 1954 to 2001.
The Department of Energy began an “environmental cleanup program” while the plant was converted into a waste disposal site harboring “radioactive material, chemically contaminated waste and construction debris,” according to The Columbus Dispatch.
While school officials are demanding more tests to determine the level of contamination and its danger to the school, which enrolls more than 350 students, frantic parents have one major worry: cancer.
“I watched my dad die of cancer. I can’t imagine having to watch my son also go through that,” Day said, adding that cancer is already “rampant” in Pike County, which is east of Cincinnati and has a population of about 28,000.
Between 2010 to 2014, the cancer incidence rate in the county was almost 488 per 100,000, according to the Ohio Department of Health. The rate is 10 percent higher than the national average.
Katie Whiting, who has a fourth grader at the school, said she’s “terrified” of cancer and other health issues the uranium exposure may cause.
“This could have long-term effects that we may never know of,” she said.
She and other parents blame the Department of Energy and say its “not taking this seriously.”
“I believe they don’t want to shell out the extra money it costs to do it right, and now my kid may pay the price,” Whiting added.
“It’s clear that the department doesn’t care about the community,” said Bonita Weatherhead, whose son, Erison, is a fifth grader at Zahn’s Corner. She said the community had several meetings with department representatives regarding their concerns, but felt the agency was “brushing them off.”
Weatherhead believes the slight is because the community is poor and “does not have the money to fight back.”
Pike County has a 20 percent poverty rate, making it one of the poorest counties in Ohio, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
In a statement to NBC News, Department of Energy Deputy Press Secretary Kelly Love said routine air samples revealed trace amounts of Neptunium-237 and Americium-241.
“DOE treats all detections seriously — even those at low levels,” Love said. “In these cases, Neptunium-237 and Americium-241 levels were one thousand times and ten thousand times, respectively, below the established thresholds of public health concern.