PIKETON — A researcher who served as chief scientist at a now-shuttered uranium-enrichment plant in this southern Ohio community said he wants transparency and truth from the federal government about traces of radioactive metal detected outside a middle school.

David Manuta, who worked full-time at the federal Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant from June 1992 to September 2000,

"The bottom line is, having worked in this industry for as long as I have, none of this stuff should have gotten off the reservation,” Manuta said. “And the fact that it's in the schools is particularly disheartening and especially when you don't expect to find it there."

Over the past weeks, local officials and residents learned from the Department of Energy (DOE) that an air monitor across the street from Zahn’s Corners Middle School had detected traces of radioactive metals, neptunium in 2017 and americium in 2018.

Further, a recent report by an outside researcher showed that enriched uranium had been detected in the school, on wipe samples collected by a resident who has been concerned about contaminants and lives in a home that neighbors the plant. Among about 80 samples collected from various areas, including waterways and dust in homes, uranium, neptunium and plutonium were detected.

The information prompted leaders of the Scioto Valley Local School District to close Zahn’s Corners Middle School on Monday for the remainder of the school year, which was scheduled to end May 23.

The DOE has said that the routine air sampling found only trace amounts of the elements, more than 1,000 to 10,0000 times below the established threshold of public health concern.

“DOE treats all detections seriously — even those that are at such low levels," the agency said in a Tuesday statement. “... We are working together with the local officials and stakeholders to engage an independent third party to perform an additional analysis of the air and ground readings to properly assess the situation. We are confident that those findings will allay any cause for further concern."

Outside contamination can be prevented and, historically, the site has been run in such a way as to keep the surrounding community safe, Manuta said.

Manuta, who has a consulting firm in Waverly, acknowledged that he and the DOE have been on the outs. He serves as an expert witness for former nuclear plant workers who are sick and have been denied compensation from the government.

“Most of the time when testifying at hearings, it’s to identify what they failed to do,” Manuta said at Ritchie’s restaurant, where he was lunching Tuesday with other former plant workers. “So this is just the latest incarnation of a DOE failure.”

Manuta said he had not analyzed the reports from the DOE or the outside researcher, and he spoke before it was publicly known that a second radioactive isotope, americium, also had been detected by the air monitor near the school.

If the independent tests come in at any significant level, Manuta said, Zahn’s Corners students should undergo blood and urine testing for toxic materials.

“I’d feel a lot more comfortable to know what I’m dealing with, to find out if there’s detectable levels in the children,” he said.

The information about the off-site detection has riled residents and officials who also have been opposed to a planned waste disposal area of 1.4 million cubic yards being built as part of clean-up efforts at the former uranium-enrichment complex that began in 2011. The 3,000-acre site stopped producing enriched uranium in 2001.

The federal government has said that nearly all of the radioactive materials on the site will be shipped to other locations.

Some local officials and residents have asked if the contaminants that have been found may have resulted from recent cleanup work.

Manuta said it is possible, but a long shot, that uranium found inside the school could be a result of a plant program from years ago through which he and two others did science demonstrations in schools. During such demonstrations, he said, the uranium was encased in a container to prevent radiation from getting into the surrounding atmosphere.

He said testing multiple sites between the school and the plant for contaminants could help determine the root cause. If contaminants are detected there, he said, it would be pretty good evidence that it came from the plant. If not, it is more likely the uranium was taken into the school.

Other elements were not taken into schools, he said.

Manuta mostly works with former nuclear plant employees in Ohio, but also has traveled to other sites.

“Historically, I thought it was less bad here,” he said. “ ... But after what’s happened in the last few weeks, I’m not so sure.

He said this is different than other concerns that have been expressed about the plant in the past.

“Because A) it got off the reservation, and B) it’s in the school, and to me that’s what sets it apart because, fundamentally we had a fence around the plant,” he said. "... From my perspective, not having seen the data, I don’t know how bad it is, but what I do know is it shouldn’t have been there."