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Slow Paced Clean Up of Cold War Era Atomic Plant Frustrates Piketon Area Residents

Airiel view of The Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant
US Department of Energy
The Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant near Piketon stretches across nearly 3,000 acres

The village of Piketon, in southern Ohio, played a major role during the cold war as the site of a U.S. nuclear weapons plant.  Now Ohio lawmakers want more money to clean up the plant’s nuclear residue.  But Congressional funding disputes are getting tiresome for Piketon workers and residents.

  For decades there’s been a certain mystery surrounding the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion plant near Piketon, even among residents. Blaine Beekman is a local historian and a Pike County commissioner.

“Back in 1952, when that announcement was made, we were all impressed that we were going to get that plant.  And we weren’t even sure what it was,” Beekman says.

Four years and $1.2 billion later the plant began producing highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium.  But as cold war tensions eased, so did production.  The plant closed in 2001.  It could have been a tremendous blow to economically depressed Pike County and southern Ohio. But Beekman says state officials and members of Ohio’s congressional delegation lobbied to clean up the nearly 3,000-acre site. A contractor was hired to decontaminate the toxic waste.

“You’ve now had 14 years where we’re trying to get it cleaned up, so that you can take the 2700 acres and be able to maybe do a future reindustrialization,” Beekman says.

Cleaning up a nuclear weapons site takes time.  It won’t be finished for another 30 years.  It also takes a lot of people and a lot of money. Somewhere between $300 million and $400 million is spent each year at Piketon.  About 1900 workers are decontaminating the site; more people than worked there when the plant was operating.

Funding for cleanup rests in the hands of Congress and the president.  But getting adequate money has always been a struggle.  Local United Steelworkers Union president Herman Potter recently appealed to President Obama about the matter.  He says candidate Obama promised that the site would be cleaned up quickly.

“Back in 2008 there was some promises of commitment to cleaning up the site and prepare for reindustrialization and we just kind of keep changing our plans,” Potter says.

Residents in Piketon are frustrated, too; frustrated with the gridlock in Washington.  Again, county commissioner Blaine Beekman.

“That gridlock affects this project because you never have enough appropriations to cover the yearly expenses,” Beekman says. 

Over a lunchtime meal at Piketon’s Riverside Restaurant, Dave Stockham, a local school board member, says he won’t believe any more promises about what he calls the “A” or atomic plant.

“Everyone who runs in 2016 will promise you we’ll fully fund the A plant.  Well we’ve been hearing that for years.  And someone’s got to make them realize that these are Americans here, too,” Stockham says.

Union president Herman Potter adds that people in the area believe they’re under a constant threat of losing their jobs.

“On a daily basis we have got people asking the questions if there’s going to be work here.  They don’t know if they’re going to have a job or not from day to day.  So not only can we not plan for cleaning up the site and bringing industry here, we can’t even plan the future because we don’t know how many years we have here to clean up,” Potter says.

Stockham says southern Ohio lacks political clout to get the needed funds.

“They’re playing politics in southern Ohio.  Southern Ohio has always been cheated on funding because we’re small populated, not a very densely populated part of the state.  The county is mainly a Democratic County and that hurts us,” Stockham says.

The House of Representatives recently voted to approve $213 million for future clean-up at Piketon.  That’s $48 million more than the Obama administration requested. White House advisors say they’ll recommend the president veto the bill because it drastically underfunds investments in clean energy.