Nuclear power has been sold by some people as a clean alternative to coal or natural gas for producing electricity, but the experience of one small town in southern Ohio shows that nuclear power is not really clean power.
According to an article last week in the Wall Street Journal, demolition has begun or is about to begin on the old uranium enrichment plant at Piketon, Ohio. The plant is about 25 to 30 miles north of Portsmouth, Ohio, which puts it at about an hour and a half driving time from Huntington.
From 1954 to 2001, the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, as it was called, was one of the three plants in the U.S. that produced highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons and for commercial reactors. The other two were at Paducah, Kentucky, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee. At its height, the Piketon plant employed thousands of workers, some of whom commuted long distances.
In 2001, the three plants’ operations were consolidated at Paducah. That rendered the Piketon plant redundant. Although plans were floated to replace its outmoded gas centrifuge technology with something more modern, none was ever put into practice there, and now after 20 years of idleness the plant is being dismantled.
The Journal article quotes several Piketon area residents as being concerned that not enough steps are being taken to protect demolition workers from radiation-related illness and to protect nearby residents, too. Two years ago, neptunium-237, a radioactive element, was detected across the road from Zahns Corners Middle School. After that, radioactive isotopes were found in the school, several nearby homes and a creek. The Department of Energy says the neptunium-237 was at normal background levels and could be naturally occurring. Nevertheless, the school was closed.
This wasn’t the first time concerns had been raised about how the plant affected local health. Over the past 40 years at least, some nearby residents have said the plant was a contributor to a local cancer cluster.
The plant’s sheer economic strength in southern Ohio — reaching into northeast Kentucky, also — provided some cover, but with the plant having been closed for 20 years, that protection is gone.
There are few forms of truly “clean” energy, whether we’re talking about fossil fuels or renewables. Using the Piketon plant again as an example, the old technology used at Piketon required tremendous amounts of electricity. Two coal-fired power plants were built to supply it with the energy it needed. One was the Kyger Creek plant a few miles north of Gallipolis, Ohio. The other was in Indiana.
All forms of energy production have their drawbacks, and each requires a cost-benefit analysis to determine if new technologies are better than old ones. It’s the argument some people make regarding electric cars, and it’s the same one that has come into play with the cleanup at Piketon.