An Ohio school has been forced to close for the remainder of the academic year after enriched uranium was discovered inside. Neptunium 237—a byproduct of nuclear reaction and plutonium production—was also detected inside Zahn's Corner Middle School in the town of Piketon, about 80 miles east of Cincinnati, WLWT reported.
Both substances are radioactive, and extended exposure to them can cause cancer.
The middle school serves about 320 students, and officials have been working to determine the source of the contamination and establish its extent. They have not ruled out a longer school closure.
Scioto Valley Local School District Superintendent Todd Burkitt made the decision to close the school on Monday. "Even the last couple of hours have been very hectic. There's just not a playbook in how we deal with this. We're kind of writing the script as we go. We're not going to take any chances on someone's child. We just won't do that," Burkitt told WLWT.
The state department of education said that the affected students had already fulfilled their necessary classroom hours for the year, so would not need to make up the missed days once the uranium issue had been addressed.
The source of the enriched uranium remains unclear. According to WLWT, some local residents suggested that the nearby Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant—located 2 miles from the school—might be responsible. The facility previously produced enriched uranium, including weapons-grade uranium, for the United States Atomic Energy program and for use in U.S. nuclear weapons. Uranium enrichment at the site ended in 2001.
The site is now subject to an environmental cleanup under the supervision of the Department of Energy. Department officials told WLWT, "Routine air samples in the area of DOE Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon revealed trace amounts of two radiological isotopes that were more than one thousand to ten thousand times below the established threshold of public health concern. DOE treats all detections seriously—even those that are at such low levels."
The statement said the department was "committed to the safety, health and protection of our workforce, the general public and the environment at all our sites." Officials said the Department of Energy is planning to commission an "independent third party to perform an additional analysis of the air and ground readings to properly assess the situation." The statement noted that the department was "confident that those findings will allay any cause for further concern."
Regardless, the development came as a shock to the local community. Jennifer Chandler, a councilwoman for Piketon, told WLWT: "We aren't prepared for something like this, that's for sure… We, at this point, don't know how far the contamination has reached. That will be part of the ongoing investigation." She noted that homes and bodies of water had tested positive for enriched uranium and neptunium.