Norm and Betty Jo Anderson have lived in Piketon, Ohio, a tiny town in the Appalachian foothills, since the 1950s.
It’s a company town, but the major employer is not your average company. It’s actually a Cold War-era uranium enrichment plant that was once a giant federal project, the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant. Norm Anderson worked there from the beginning and retired in 1999. He says he had a reputation at work.
“I was called ‘Hard Head,’ because I had my way of doing things,” he says, laughing.
LISTEN: “A Nuclear Town Faces a Hazy Future”
He and Betty Jo, who have been married since they were barely out of high school, sit on their brown plaid living room couch, often holding hands, constantly laughing and talking over each other. They’re serving as my Pike County history experts: Norm remembers the early days of the plant, when tens of thousands of people were on site to build structures that were some of the largest in the world at the time. Betty Jo remembers picking up Norm at work to noise so loud you could feel it in the car in the parking lot. For Norm, the memory is of the sheer size of the buildings.
“It’s hard to tell people of the magnitude of those buildings,” he says. The one he worked in had 33 acres to a floor. “And those were concrete floors. Can you imagine pouring 33 acres of concrete?”
But when Norm and Betty Jo talk about the plant, there’s a sense of nostalgia bordering on sadness. The plant stopped enriching uranium about 15 years ago (the technology for enrichment has advanced significantly), but almost 2,000 people go to work there every day just cleaning up the site. Now, even some of those cleanup jobs could be in jeopardy.