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‘Our job is to create jobs’

Originally published April 20, 2018 in the Daily Times

Even though it sits in Piketon, what has long been known as the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant — and commonly referred to as the A-Plant because it is the site where uranium was enriched for use in atomic bombs — essentially was shut down by the federal government in 2001. Technically, the plant, used to enrich uranium starting in 1952, was placed into “cold standby,” says Jason Lovins, a spokesperson for Fluor-BWXT/Portsmouth, which currently has about 2,000 people working to dismantle the enormous — but shuttered — plant.

In a few months, the dismantling project and accompanying environmental cleanup will hit a major milestone as an approximately 80-acre piece of plant property is turned over for private redevelopment. Lovins and others say making the slice of land available is a small step in transforming the entire 3,700-acre site back into a productive industrial location.

Fluor-BWXT and other entities involved in the cleanup of the diffusion plant held an open house earlier this week at the Scioto County Welcome Center to discuss the current state of that cleanup and the future of the overall site. Additional open houses were held Thursday at the Waverly YMCA, and future open houses are scheduled for 2 to 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Riverview Conference Center in Chillicothe and 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Jackson High School.

Because the remaining plant and the surrounding property is a relic of the Cold War, used by the federal government to produce uranium for use in weapons, to power Naval vessels and nuclear power plants, repurposing the property is said not to be a simple task. Lovins and other officials say before any of the land can be reused, approvals must be gained from such entities as the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency all the way up to the U.S. Congress. Officials hope the land can be transferred sometime this summer. Initially, it will be turned over to the Southern Ohio Diversification Initiative (SODI.) Technically, SODI is what is known as a “community reuse organization,” entities established by the federal government at the end of the Cold War to oversee the closure, clean up and reuse of sites such as the Portsmouth diffusion plant.

“Our job is to create jobs,” says SODI Executive Director Steve Shepherd, adding the goal is to replace all the high-paying jobs that once existed at the diffusion plant as well as the jobs now being worked to tear down and remove that plant. SODI is working with what’s been dubbed “PORTSfuture,” a program of Ohio University, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

During 2010 and 2011, OU conducted a 15-month study to determine what the public hoped to see rise from the ashes of the diffusion plant. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the No. 1 scenario picked by the public was a nuclear power plant, a potential scheme which earned 495 of 1,141 public votes cast during the OU study, which included persons from four counties: Pike, Scioto, Ross and Jackson. OU’s Stephen Howe says the diffusion plant was a longtime, integral part of the local community. “People have become comfortable with the idea of nuclear power,” he says.

Regarding the slice of acreage to become available this summer, the most likely use at this point seems to be some sort of non-nuclear power plant, according to plans presented by OU and SODI. In the simplest terms, officials are looking to create a major heat source using natural gas, biomass (described, for example, as wood chips), municipal solid waste and chipped tires. That heat source would then be used to generate electricity and to produce hydrogen for use in at least five manufacturing processes, including a refinery for oil, coal, tires and biomass. Ammonia and methanol production are also possibilities. The plan is described as an “Integrated Energy System (IES)/closed loop, advanced manufacturing complex to grow industry, leverage coal and shale resources,” according to information provided during the open house. Lovins and OU spokespeople talked about the plan creating the maximum number of jobs on the available property. Lovins admitted ammonia and methanol production might not seem all that glamorous or the most environmentally sound uses for the property. However, he pointed out that the land has been used for extremely heavy industry, and can only be used for similar purposes. You’re not going to put a housing project in that location, he quipped.

How long will it take for the plans for the power plant or whatever concept is ultimately adopted for the 80 acres to appear? Think in years, SODI’s Shepherd explained. He added SODI has not been able to market the property since it doesn’t actually have title to it at this point. He did talk about speaking with industrial officials in Europe and other far-off spots to figure out best uses of the land.

Lovins and Greg Simonton of the Department of Energy said the next step is to prepare about 200 acres adjacent to the 80-acre site for use and marketing by SODI. Again, that process is expected to take several years. Lovins and Simonton both said tearing down the entire diffusion plan will require decades. A silly question, perhaps, but Simonton was asked why a couple of cranes with wrecking balls and a few bulldozers couldn’t knock the job out quickly. Predictably, Simonton said that, of course, the process just isn’t that simple. Not only was the diffusion plant used to create uranium, it is filled with building materials considered hazardous today, ranging from asbestos to PCPs. That said, Lovins and SODI spokespeople all said they hope to show portions of the plant property can be reused even as demolition of the plant continues.

At least one section of the plant property likely is never going to be reused. Plans are to place a permanent debris storage facility onsite. That plan is opposed by several local governments, including Portsmouth, Piketon, Jackson, Chillicothe and New Boston, where local legislators joined their countrerparts in surrounding communities in oppossing the storage facility plan. All those officials already may have lost this battle, however. Simonton said planners had followed the rules to win approval of what might be called a dump site, and his belief is those plans are moving forward.