An Ohio middle school in the Scioto Valley Local School District will be closed for the rest of the year after the discovery of possible radioactive contamination.
Zahn’s Corner Middle School is just miles away from Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, which the federal Department of Energy (DOE) is currently decommissioning, reports NBC News. It was one of three plants in the U.S. that supported the nation’s nuclear weapons program, producing enriched uranium from 1954 to 2001.
Parents like Ashley Day have always worried about the potential health risks of having a school so close to the defunct nuclear power plant.
“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.”
According to the school district, enriched uranium and neptunium-237, two highly carcinogenic radioactive chemicals, were detected inside the building and at a DOE air monitor next 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 urged the DOE to “take appropriate actions to ensure radiological contaminants are not being released from the site.”
Katie Whiting, who has a fourth-grader at the school, said she is 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, adding that she and other parents blame the DOE and don’t believe it is taking the matter 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 said.
Another mother, Bonita Weatherhead, said the community has had several meetings with department representatives regarding their concerns.
She believes the DOE doesn’t care about their community because it is poor and “does not have the money to fight back.” Pike County has a 20% poverty rate, making it one of the poorest counties in Ohio, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The DOE confirmed trace amounts of Neptunium-237 and Americium-241 in their routine air samples.
“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,” said DOE Deputy Press Secretary Kelly Love. “No enriched uranium was identified in any of the air samples taken by the Department of Energy at this school,” she continued.
She added that the DOE and school and state officials are working on selecting an independent third party to perform additional sampling to “dispel any cause for further concern.”
The concerns, however, have been present since 2017 after the Pike County Health Department found traces of neptunium at an air monitoring station on the grounds of the middle school. The department has been pushing back the construction on the disposal site ever since.
According to nuclear forensics expert Marco Katofen, neptunium can be the most devastating. Those exposed may not show symptoms of cancer or ill health effects right away, but the radiation could damage the body over time and a person could be diagnosed years or decades later.
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