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In Southern Ohio, A Nuclear Town Faces A Hazy Future

UPDATE: As of Thursday, Dec. 17, it appears likely that Congress will fully fund the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant cleanup for FY2016. A spokesperson for the main contractor at the plant says it's too soon to be sure, but layoffs appear unlikely.

Norm and Betty Jo Anderson have lived in Piketon, Ohio, a tiny town in the Appalachian foothills, since the 1950s.

It’s a company town, but the major employer is not your average company. It’s actually a Cold War-era uranium enrichment plant that was once a giant federal project, the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant. Norm Anderson worked there from the beginning and retired in 1999—he says he had a reputation at work.

“I was called ‘Hard Head,’ because I had my way of doing things,” he says, laughing.

He and Betty Jo, who have been married since they were barely out of high school, sit on their brown plaid living room couch, often holding hands, constantly laughing and talking over each other. They’re serving as my Pike County history experts: Norm remembers the early days of the plant, when tens of thousands of people were on site to build structures that were some of the largest in the world at the time. Betty Jo remembers picking up Norm at work to noise so loud you could feel it in the car in the parking lot. For Norm, the memory is of the sheer size of the buildings.

“It’s hard to tell people of the magnitude of those buildings,” he says. The one he worked in had 33 acres to a floor. “And those were concrete floors. Can you imagine pouring 33 acres of concrete?”

But when Norm and Betty Jo talk about the plant, there’s a sense of nostalgia bordering on sadness. The plant stopped enriching uranium about 15 years ago (the technology for enrichment has advanced significantly), but almost 2,000 people go to work there every day just cleaning up the site. Now, even some of those cleanup jobs could be in jeopardy.

From “bomb plant” to environmental morass

In the 50s, Piketon and the nearby town of Waverly were boom towns: visiting workers were put up in shacks, and housing went up in rows almost overnight. The plant still employed thousands of people through the 1990s.

The enriched uranium was used for bombs in the early years, then later submarines and power plants—older residents used to call it the “bomb plant,” although they never made bombs, just the U-235 used in them.

“We’re disassembling it literally piece by piece right now,” says Jeff Wagner, the public relations guy for Fluor, the contractor that’s running the Portsmouth cleanup.

We stand outside the web of chain link and razor wire that encloses the plant as we talk; in the oldest building inside, there’s a Star Trek type control room, with old-school analog gauges covering every wall. I met three guys whose job is to sit there in shifts, 24-7 monitoring for leaks in the old industrial equipment. In the newest building, equipment is being cleaned and removed, each giant piece wrapped in thick plastic for shipment. Workers wear full hazmat suits, and truckloads of dinosaur-sized equipment leave here daily.

“It goes to a DOE certified disposal site in Nevada,” says Wagner.

Barrels stacked on the ground at the Portsmouth plant hold hundreds of thousands of tons of unenriched, raw uranium that was never used. Now it's being gradually sold off to help pay for the cleanup.
Credit Lewis Wallace / WYSO
Barrels stacked on the ground at the Portsmouth plant hold hundreds of thousands of tons of unenriched, raw uranium that was never used. Now it's being gradually sold off to help pay for the cleanup.

The Department of Energy oversees the project. On top of the contaminated machinery, the agency is dealing with chemical spills on the land and in the groundwater—the kind that were sort of routine back in the 50s and 60s but are now known to be toxic.

The whole cleanup is expected to take at least until 2042, Wagner says. And, there’s the B-word.

“The timeline is really predicated on the budget,” he says. With a work slowdown, it could take until 2054 to get the Portsmouth site cleaned up.

A cleanup that’s slowed down

The budget is what Fluor and Ohio’s senators have been jostling with the feds about—the money allocated to this cleanup has fluctuated. This summer hundreds of workers at the plant got layoff warnings, and offers of buyouts, because the budget for fiscal year 2016 could go down about $50 million from the amount spent in the 2015 fiscal year.

This instability is the stuff Pike County’s leaders chat about when they gather at the county building for coffee in the mornings.

“I’ve said it before, they’ve shook a pork chop in front of a starving dog too long,” says county treasurer Ed Davis, to chuckles. None of these county guys have ever worked for the plant, but they know plant employees make more money than most around here, and spend it in the community.

And they know the pollution on the site, even though it’s contained, can scare off developers.

“Now’s not the time to be holding back the money,” Davis says. “Now’s the time to be cleaning it up and maybe transform that into a productive place again.”

Gary Arnett, the head of economic development for the county, takes me in his SUV to show me some of the properties they’re trying to market to businesses. We drive through the rolling hills to one of several abandoned industrial buildings—part of it has recently become a feed store called Rural King, the biggest new employer here.

“There’s almost a million square feet of unoccupied buildings down here,” he says, showing off the warehouse space he’s trying to market to anyone who’ll show interest. But it’s a competitive environment—cities and counties all over the country are vying for the same jobs. “It’s brutal, it really is…we’ve come close. But no cigar.”

He says Pike County needs a big job score—one in four people are living in poverty, and retail and restaurants can’t fix that.

“The only thing we can hope for is maybe a nuclear power plant,” Arnett says.

Nuclear could be coming back; some see nuclear power as a way to address climate change. But the cleanup comes first.

“Everybody we love around here is going to go”

“We knew what we were doing and we knew that we were gonna be using this material to make fuel for bombs,” says Norm “Hard Head” Anderson. He says nuclear’s bad reputation often gave Piketon a bad rap. “That was one of the problems is that a lot of people felt that this place had the same problems and the same dangers as atomic power plants.”

He believes working at the plant was safe (although a recent investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and Slate finds many other former workers don't agree)—and he’s proud of his work there. He and Betty Jo go each month to a brunch for retirees; she says they’re nostalgic.

“They’re very sad about the plant being not only shut down but tore down. They saw it being built,” she says. “But I guess everybody’s that way about the end of their life and what made them happy. We were very happy living in this house and raising four children within three miles of that plant, never scared of it blowing up. Honestly we may have been stupid but it never entered our minds. That’s the truth.”

“And I saw what happened to my hometown,” says Norm. He grew up in Oak Hill, Ohio, where brick yards used to be the big business. And he left there for a good job in Piketon as the town began to decline “Now they have no brick yards, they have nothing.”

The view from a hill near the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant. When its buildings went up in the 1950s, they were some of the largest buildings ever constructed.
Credit Lewis Wallace / WYSO
The view from a hill near the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant. When its buildings went up in the 1950s, they were some of the largest buildings ever constructed.

Company towns all over, like Norm’s hometown, have lost the thing that holds them together. But here’s the conundrum for Piketon: if the cleanup slows down because of layoffs, that means a longer time living in this shadow of the Cold War. Something that only operated 45 years could take 50 to get cleaned up. And when the cleanup finishes—hundreds of jobs will be gone forever, with nothing in sight to replace them.

In the 2000s there was some hope that an experimental projecting enriching uranium with new technology on the Portsmouth Plant site would become a permanent fixture, but that project has been put on permanent hold. Ultimately Congress will determine the budget, taking into account the request from DOE, which says it asked for slightly more for fiscal year 2016 than its 2015 request. Jobs here could also depend on how raw uranium sells on the open market: the project makes some money every year from un-enriched uranium sales, and there are thousands of rusty barrels of that just sitting on the site.

“It’s not gonna affect us when that plant is shut down,” Betty Jo says. Norm is long since retired, and their four kids long since moved away. “Just everybody we love around here is going to go. And that’s sad.”

Copyright 2021 WYSO. To see more, visit WYSO.

Lewis Wallace comes to WYSO from the Pritzker Journalism Fellowship at WBEZ in Chicago, where he reported on the environment, technology, science and economics. Prior to going down the public radio rabbit hole, he was a community organizer and producer for a multimedia project about youth and policing in Chicago. Originally from Ann Arbor, Mich., Lewis spent many years as a freelance writer, anti-oppression trainer, barista and sex educator in Chicago and in Oakland. He holds a B.A. in Religious Studies from Northwestern University, and he has expanded his journalism training through the 2013 Metcalf Fellowship for Environmental Journalism and the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources.