(CNN)Are we safe? That's the concern that's been in the back of neighbors' minds when they look at the looming Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Pike County, Ohio, Jennifer Chandler said.
Ohio town worries about safety after radioactive contamination is found at middle school
"It looks like they make clouds there," the Piketon village councilwoman thought as a child, seeing steam coming out of the stacks. "When I was growing up, I didn't have any idea what they did."
The US Department of Energy plant was built to produce enriched uranium for the nation's nuclear weapons program during the Cold War and, in later years, supported commercial nuclear reactors. One of three such plants in the United States, it operated from 1954 to 2001, when it commenced decontamination and decommissioning, which continues today.
In the past five years, five students in the nearby Scioto Valley Local School District have been diagnosed with cancer; three of them have died, Chandler said. Her cousin, Luke, who grew up near the facility, died years ago of leukemia. She wonders whether it is a cancer cluster.
"You don't want to make a claim that you can't back up. How is this caused? Is this a genetic cancer? Is this an environmental cancer? I'm not a medical professional," she said. It's a sensitive subject: "This isn't a game, you know. These are people's lives."
On Monday, Zahn's Corner Middle School in Piketon was closed because enriched uranium had been detected inside the building and neptunium-237 had been detected by an air monitor next to it.
"As the crow flies, the school is less than two miles from the DOE property boundary," Chandler said.
The district said Tuesday that the school will remain closed "until the source, extent, level of contamination, and potential impacts to public health and the environment can be determined."