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Former Portsmouth Lead Scientist Criticizes Federal Response To Radiation

A photo of the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant near Piketon, Ohio, on June 22, 2000. The plant was shuttered in 2001.
David Kohl
Associated Press
A photo of the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant near Piketon, Ohio, on June 22, 2000. The plant was shuttered in 2001.

The U.S. Department of Energy recently revealed that radioactive materials turned up in air testing results in Piketon from 2017-18, leading to the closure of a local school. Officials argue those traces aren’t a threat to public health.

But former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant lead scientist David Manuta, speaking Thursday on WOSU’s All Sides with Ann Fisher, expressed skepticism because of the nature of the elements detected.

“Any amount of Neptunium just basically sets off alarms and sirens for me,” Manuta says.

Although the element occurs naturally, it’s exceedingly rare—usually showing up in trace amounts in uranium ores. Neptunium is more commonly produced as a by-product of nuclear reactors.

“Neptunium has to be prepared in a reactor," Manuta says, “and the last time I checked there weren't any reactors in high schools, so DOE is being disingenuous.”

Earlier this week, Scioto Valley School District officials closed a school – a Zahn's Corner Middle School, not a high school – early over concerns about radioactive contamination. The incident prompted calls for work to cease on the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant nearby.

The plant was shuttered in 2001, but federal contractors are still in the processof tearing it down and disposing of the waste on-site.

Since leaving his post at the plant, Manuta set up a consulting agency. He spends much of his time working as an expert witness on behalf of Department of Energy workers seeking settlements for diseases they contracted while working for the agency.

"I probably have forgotten more about what goes on in nuclear energy than the typical senior level official over there,” Manuta says. “So I'm actually appalled that they would attempt, yet again, to placate the people of Pike County."

In a statement, the U.S. Department of Eenergy 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. No enriched uranium was identified in any of the air samples taken by the Department of Energy at this school."

The agency plans to conduct additional testing through an independent third party.

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.