The script for the first of two Department of Energy public meetings seemingly could have been written well ahead of time.
DOE administrators, consultants and scientists all said there is nothing environmentally amiss in Pike or northern Scioto counties, there is no risk to public health whatsoever coming from the shuttered Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant.
For the most part, rightly or wrongly, based on observation and face-to-face conversations, those in the small audience of Monday night’s meeting at the Pike County Career Technology Center, believed little of what was said.
From DOE’s perspective, the primary purpose of the session was to explain the results of testing done over the Memorial Day weekend at Zahn’s Corner Middle School in Piketon.
After two reports – one released by DOE and one completed by an out of state university – showed radioactive contamination inside and outside the school, once home to some 300 students, the building closed early for the 1998-1999 school year. The local school district later announced Zahn’s will remain closed during the coming school year with students and staff reassigned.
The decision to close the school is just fine with local resident Todd Rose, who sat in on Monday’s meeting because his daughter initially was to attend fourth grade at Zahn’s.
“I just wanted to know more about what is going on… I don’t know who to believe,” Rose said. “I do know if there is any threat of contamination at the school, we would not want her to go there.”
Rose added he and his wife, who declined comment, talked about sending their daughter to a different school district.
Director of the decommissioning and deconstruction of the unused Portsmouth plant, Robert Edwards, along with others, on Monday emphasized the Memorial Day testing at Zahn’s school is not intended to take the place of an independent third-party radiation study promised by DOE following the discovery of radioactive contaminants around the school. A DOE consultant described that study as exclusively in the purview of Pike County and the local school district.
“We’re just picking up the tab,” the consultant said.
DOE first reported the radioactive substance known as neptunium was present around the school in their 2017 Annual Site Environmental Report (ASER.) That report did not become public until January of this year. A roughly two year wait is standard because of the amount of data going into ASERs, Edwards said. A 2018 ASER will not be fully public until January 2020.
As DOE officials contended previously, on Monday two DOE scientific consultants restated amounts of radioactive materials found in and around the school are 1,000 to 10,000 times below the thresholds for risk to public safety. The Portsmouth plant primarily produced enriched uranium for use in nuclear power plants and weaponry.
On Monday, consultants emphasized DOE found no enriched uranium inside the school. That statement directly contradicts the findings of Michael E. Ketterer, professor emeritus of chemistry and biochemistry at Northern Arizona University.
NAU conducted its own pro bono study at the school and allegedly did find enriched materials inside the building. DOE largely dismisses those findings.
Consultant Kathy Higley, a Ph.D. in radiological health, told the Daily Times, Ketterer’s report, among other technical and scientific problems, never mentions the dosage of radiation to which persons inside the school hypothetically were exposed. For her, that is an untenable omission on Ketterer’s part.
In any case, Higley insists the amounts of radiation found even hypothetically inside the school are far, far below danger levels. She talked to the audience about how a bag of fertilizer containing potassium will set off a Geiger counter. According to information presented by DOE, the average American is exposed to 620 millirems of radiation per year just in the normal course of living. This did not seem to include radiation exposure coming from medical sources such as various forms of routine testing.
While Higley was willing to talk to a reporter, a DOE public relations person stood by in the background and later denied the only media person at the event permission to talk with other experts brought to the meeting. While the general public could speak with the experts, the media was barred. Asked to explain on what grounds the media was not permitted to speak with the experts on hand, DOE spokesperson Michael Nartker simply responded it was DOE policy. He ignored a question about how that policy helped DOE’s credibility in a region where the government agency seems decidedly lacking in credibility.
Another public DOE session was set for the same location Tuesday evening. All DOE may or may not have a presence, the Scioto Valley Local School District called a public meeting for 11 a.m., Saturday at Piketon High School, 1414 Piketon Rd., Piketon. Ketterer, the author of the NAU study, is expected to speak. A Times attempt to reach him for comment Tuesday proved unsuccessful.
Reach Tom Corrigan at (740) 370- 0715. © 2019 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved.