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Local officials are cautiously optimistic about a proposed hydrogen plant in Pike County

Piketon is home to about 2,200 people. Not far from town is the site of the former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant.
Tyler Thompson
Piketon is home to about 2,200 people. Not far from town is the site of the former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

A proposed hydrogen plant in Piketon, Ohio is gaining steam. A Texas-based energy company plans to build on the site of a former uranium enrichment facility. While local leaders support the project, they hope it is not an empty promise and it’s safe for workers and neighbors.

Nestled in Southern Ohio's Pike County, the village of Piketon is home to about 2,200 people. The valley is teeming with luscious green trees, hills and rolling fields. It was once home to the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, spanning 1,200 acres.

Tony Montgomery is the Pike County Commissioners chamber.
Tyler Thompson
Tony Montgomery is the Pike County Commissioners chamber.

It provided almost 3,800 jobs at its peak, producing enriched uranium for nuclear weapons in the 50s and later, nuclear energy plants. Tom Montgomery is a Pike County Commissioner.

“We shouldered the nuclear capacity of this nation for a long time," he said. “There was some honor in doing it. It’s been a big deal out there for a long, long time.”

But in 2001, with enriched uranium no longer needed, the plant closed.

The U.S Department of Energy [DOE] owns the facility and about 3,600 acres of land in the area. In a statement from spokesperson Yvette Cantrell, she said that clean up of those acres is being done with oversight from the Ohio EPA and will meet all regulatory requirements necessary to prepare the site for a future industrial reuse.

Some clean up efforts began in 1989, a spokesperson said for the DOE. It detailed a time for decontamination and that started in 2011. This month it completed demolition of one of three uranium process buildings.

There are over 400 facilities at the plants site.

As those efforts progress, the DOE signs useable land over to the Southern Ohio Diversification Initiative [SODI], a non-profit dedicated to reinvestment on the property. So far its transferred 80 acres and is working to transfer another 200 acres.

At the end of May, Texas-based energy company Newpoint Gas committed to purchasing 248 acres from SODI to build a hydrogen energy plant.

Piketon County uranium process building demolition
Courtesy of the Office of Environmental Energy
Demolition of the uranium process building, which finished June 16, 2022 three months ahead of schedule.

In a statement to WOSU, executive director Steven Shepherd said, “We are excited to move forward with this opportunity with Newpoint Gas. We know that any project has its challenges, but this could be the hub to an energy park that we have been working on for many years. We put health and safety first and the process will prove that out. This would provide living wage jobs for our community for many years.”

The company’s CEO Wiley Rhodes Rhodes said the Piketon site is a “unique” opportunity.

“When it was a uranium enrichment site, they built out this power collection system to bring power to that site to make sure that they didn’t lose power in the area,” Rhodes said.

Rhodes also mentioned Pike’s transportation infrastructure as a benefit, like its rail and roads system to move products on and off site.

Rhodes’ goal is to tap into that system. The plant would generate over 225 megawatts of electricity. It would also produce over 500 metric tons of hydrogen per day to be used in the production of cement and silica, a material used in solar panel and semiconductor manufacturing.

“There’s a myriad of opportunity that that site creates,” Rhodes said.

Newpoint Gas is also partnered with Ohio University on the project. The university has researched ways to reindustrialize the Portsmouth site for the last decade including reuse for a potential solar farm.

For Piketon, it’s an opportunity to replace jobs that the uranium plant once provided. Jennifer Chandler is the village administrator.

“The DOE site has been a tremendous economic engine for the region," Chandler said. "We’ve been working on infrastructure in our area, improving our housing options and things like that to support potential reuse.”

Site of the former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, in Piketon, OH.
Courtesy of New Point Gas
Site of the former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, in Piketon, OH.

Chandler said some wonder if the project will actually happen. Past proposals were either rumors or simply fell through.

“I’ve heard a friend of mine describe it as Charlie Brown and the football," she said. "We definitely hope that it's built, as long as it is safe and operations are safe and there aren't negative impacts to the community from an environmental standpoint.”

Newpoint Gas must secure permits from the Environmental Protection Agency to start construction. One of those is an air quality permit. Rhodes said their project would reduce carbon emissions by 95% compared to power generated by coal.

“Now 95% is a lot but it’s not perfect," Rhodes said. "And we’re not claiming that it is. The world wants to get to 100% or net neutral. And these things are the foundation that provides the pathway that those things could be built.”

The EPA will also determine if the site is safe for workers due to potential radiation exposure. The DOE conducts environmental monitoring at the site and shares those results with the public.

Data is posted to Ports D&D Project, a website with annual reports and other information about the cleanup. Status levels are listed as Green or “all recent data is below the protective limit."

Rhodes said they’ve been assured that their site is safe.

“What we know, is that there are no problems in the areas that we’re working in," Rhodes said. "We wouldn’t subject ourselves to anything that could cause any health problems for us. We’re confident that the site is safe and secure.”

The first phase of the project would employ more than 500 workers during construction and some 100 maintenance and operations jobs. Rhodes is working with Ohio University to finalize workforce requirements. The goal is to increase those jobs in future phases of the project.

With that in mind, Pike County commissioner Tony Montgomery hopes the project will come to fruition.

“There’s still workforce here," Montgomery said. "So, if we lose what’s going on out there and nothing else comes back, eventually those people leave. We want to see industry; we want to see things move and it has to be safe.”

The groundwork for the project would begin in 2023. Newpoint Gas wants the plant operational by 2027.

Tyler Thompson was a reporter and on-air host for 89.7 NPR News. Thompson, originally from northeast Ohio, has spent the last three years working as a Morning Edition host and reporter at NPR member station KDLG Public Radio and reporter at the Bristol Bay Times Newspaper in Dillingham, Alaska.