23-May-2005 -- And then there was one! Like many people, I’ve had my eye on this confluence for a long time, one of the last few land-based virgin confluences in the forty-eight states. I think the write-ups from the prior attempts intimidated me from giving this one a shot. Following successes with the last remaining confluences in Texas and Wyoming, I decided to try my luck. After some intense Googling, I found a contact name for the Portsmouth USEC plant, along with some plant information. I was intrigued to find out that gaseous diffusion uranium enrichment stopped there in 2001. I thought permission to visit might be possible during this interim period, before centrifuge-based uranium enrichment begins later this year. After one phone call, a confluence package mailed to Ohio, and a brief meeting there, permission to visit was granted—all within a few weeks!
Anyway, this adventure began on Sunday, May 22, 2005, with the stinging jolt of my alarm clock at 4:45 am. I had to arise early to bake seven-dozen homemade chocolate-chip/pecan cookies for my church choral concert that afternoon, before leaving for Ohio that evening. I would like to have planned something other than a day trip to Ohio, but unfortunately I was squeezed on either side with prior commitments. After my usual Sunday morning drive to La Habra from Pasadena, a pleasant mass singing with my church choir, and the return trip home, I opted for a quick power nap. Renewed, I got up, showered, packed my suitcase (a backpack, actually) and donned my tuxedo, a most unfortunate garment choice for this 100-degree day in Southern California.
Following my second trip to La Habra of the day, I settled in for choir rehearsal, anticipating a good turnout for our annual fundraising concert. The church was quite hot, but our spirits soared when we saw the packed crowd of many hundreds. Our children’s choir started the show with “Let There Be Peace on Earth” and it was very well received. Our volunteer church choir joined with the La Habra High School Chamber Singers and performed works by Hassler, Palestrina, Mozart, and Biebl. The high-schoolers did three numbers on their own, including a debut composition by their director, on which I helped sing. Their third and final number was an upbeat spiritual, a crowd-pleaser for sure. After a brief intermission and prayer service, it was time for Schubert’s “Mass No. 2 in G-Major” with chamber orchestra. I was honored to be selected for the bass solos in this lovely work. It was a challenge singing tenor during the choral portions and jumping to bass during the solos, but at least that kept me alert and awake! I just can’t describe the thrill of soloing with a chamber orchestra to a packed house. Following standing ovations, grateful applause, and some fellowship and cookies in the church patio, it was time for the fundraising dinner, my last “obligation” before flying east.
The dinner was nice, complete with a live dance band (accordion, drums, and sax), a guest soprano and pianist, a silent auction, and a raffle drawing. Despite purchasing 150 raffle tickets (I hate having to sell things), I didn’t win any of the three prizes, though my good friend, Judy, did walk away with the Vegas-weekend package. Financially, the entire day was a tremendous success, and it was very nice relaxing after all our hard work in preparing for this concert. I toyed with volunteering myself as a datable bachelor in the silent auction, but I chickened out, fearing a maximum bid under a dollar, or, worse yet, no bids. Anyway, the dinner wrapped up slightly before 9 pm, so I said my goodbyes, peeled off my sticky tux, and prepared for a red-eye flight to Columbus via Atlanta. I made good time to LAX and hit the Delta ticket counter a few hours before my flight. Unfortunately, they didn’t have exit-row aisles available for my two flights, but they did hook me up with these coveted seats for my return journey the next day.
After navigating very long lines (typical for LAX), I settled in for a good flight to Atlanta. I slept very well for most of this flight, but we encountered wrath-of-God level turbulence as we approached Hartsfield. Have you ever been on a flight where the turbulence was so bad that everyone gasped in fear? I found it amusing, actually, since I’m a zero gravity and amusement park buff. Fully awake, all passengers enjoyed a good landing in Georgia, even a bit ahead of schedule. I was fairly comatose by this point, but I managed to find my Columbus gate. I tried to change seats here as well, to no avail. Thankfully, I would only be sandwiched between two fellow passengers for one hour on this short flight. My question for the cosmos, though, is how I always manage to be seated next to the heaviest person in coach? Kate Moss, wherefore art thou? Alas, in first class, no doubt. This flight was no exception, with a 300-plus pounder spilling over into the aisle and into my middle seat, after I helped the rotund gentleman don his flight-attendant-provided seatbelt extension.
I was surprised at the vast size of the Columbus airport, and I eventually worked my way to the Enterprise ticket counter, after another on-time flight. I had less than ten hours in Ohio, so I had to make every minute count. It did not get off to a good start, with a disgruntled cheapskate in front of me taking ten minutes to try to save a dollar or two on his rental car rate. Clearly exasperated, I let an audible sigh escape, and this did prompt the agent to call for backup. In short order, I had procured my cherry-red Dodge Neon and was off for a quick Ohio adventure. My first stop was the house of my childhood friend, Jenny, a mere ten minutes from the airport. I was excited to see her, hubby Jeff, and cute boys Nate and Sam. I also agreed to talk to the boys’ school about my day job with NASA, so we walked over to the school after some much-needed coffee, a bit of water, and a few laughs. Kindergartener Sam put together a travel “care-package” for me, which was extremely sweet and especially appreciated, given my growing lethargy.
After the briefest of walks, we arrived at the school and started setting up. All my paranoia and advanced planning paid off handsomely; there were zero audio-visual issues, and we soon brought in over 200 bright-eyed, inquisitive pupils in grades 3-6. I spoke largely about the Mars rovers; I worked on this mission for NASA at JPL for about two years, and the kids couldn’t have been more engaged and excited. I managed to show two PowerPoint slide shows, my rover animation video, and take some questions at the end, all within my allotted hour. As always, I had to tell my story about meeting the “Governator,” including doing my dime-store imitation of Arnie. And, as always, it killed, with laughter aplenty! I finished up our time together with some fun NASA show-and-tell, including my iron meteorite, piece of aerogel, and my space shuttle thermal tile. There were many cute teachers, especially Nate’s third-grade instructor, but there was no time to make time on this whirlwind confluence trip.
Back at Jenny and Jeff’s house, we went over directions, took a few pictures, and hugged our goodbyes. I hope to return for a visit when I have more time to socialize and get caught up. As a last-minute change to my well-planned trip, I decided to drive by the governor’s mansion and state capitol before turning south for Piketon. After a few missteps and illegal turns, I managed to take this picture of the state capitol while stopped at a light on High St. There was some Monday lunchtime traffic as I continued on 23S, but eventually I left the city for, well, greener pastures. This was a very pleasant drive, especially since I continually managed to dodge rainstorms and thunderstorms all around me. However, I was unable to avoid storms of cotton, from nearby cottonwood trees. This reminded me of my youth in Kansas, since the cottonwood is the state tree of my home state. I enjoyed nice views of wildflowers in the southern Ohio countryside as well, at least when not distracted by massive amounts of road construction.
My next stop, a mere seven miles from the confluence, was a recommended restaurant named Emmitt House in Waverly. This historic structure was built in 1861 by carpenter Madison Hemings, son of Sally Hemings, and a probable son of Thomas Jefferson. It was quaint, lovely, interesting—but quite smoky, which always surprises me, coming from California where smoking in restaurants is not allowed. I enjoyed a fantastic meal of super-spicy boneless buffalo wings, a homemade carrot muffin, a chicken cashew salad, and iced tea. This stop made me about ten minutes late to the USEC Portsmouth plant, but my host, Jack, was not miffed in the least. We met at the main entrance off 23S and checked in with the guard, anticipating our impending trek to 39ºN 83ºW.
With my Garmin eTrek Legend leading the way, we set off for our final destination, though via a roundabout route. He pointed out the buildings of the old gaseous diffusion plant as we circled the buildings towards to the south end of the property. It was a bit sticky, in the mid-70’s, but again I was lucky with respect to nearby rainstorms. We were able to navigate within 200 feet (61 meters) of the confluence, but then we realized it was behind a locked fence, atop the Peter Kiewit landfill, which includes some low-level radioactive waste. I felt safe next to Jack; a good rule of thumb on such facilities is to hang next to the fellow with the dosimeter! I also made the requisite joke about regretting not freezing my “DNA” before this trip, lest my “biological clock” start ticking.
Jack told me that he couldn’t provide access to this portion of the property, but he promptly scrambled to help me out. After a few phone calls, permission to access the landfill was provided. This required us to wind back to the visitor’s center (the long way). I chatted up a delightful young lady named Janie while Jack procured the key. Janie provided me with piles of wonderful literature about USEC and this facility in particular. Soon Jack and I were on our way back to the locked date. After a short walk, we found ourselves at the confluence of 39ºN 83ºW.
With excellent GPS satellite coverage and between six and eight satellites tracking, I obtained all zeroes with a GPS error of only 7 feet (2.1 meters), and an approximate elevation of 655 feet (200 meters). From a topographic map, I estimate the true elevation at 660 feet (201 meters), so this agreement is quite good. We celebrated at the confluence point, and then set down a tasteful, laminated confluence marker. Jack captured digital images from the DCP in the four cardinal and four diagonal directions; the use of my camera was prohibited for this trip, greatly improving my chances of visiting and the turn-around time for image release. I must say, Jack did an excellent job with the pictures, particularly the most difficult all-zeroes GPS photo. I’ve included most of his photos here, other than a few of me bending over the GPS with my butt-crack most prominently displayed. The view in the cardinal directions is dominated by managed grassland atop the inactive landfill, with USEC buildings in the background.
I queried my host about the flora, fauna, and geology of this area, as well as the USEC Portsmouth plant itself. He was very useful in providing this information and directing me to appropriate websites. This area of southern Ohio is located in the northwest portion of the unglaciated Appalachian Plateau, with bedrock composed of Mississippian age shale and sandstone. The area is characteristic of a dendritic drainage pattern, and it is situated on sediment filling the ancestral Portsmouth River Valley. I enjoyed this change in scenery and topography as I drove south from Columbus to Piketon, incidentally. Portsmouth and the Ohio River are only 20 miles (32 km) to the south of the confluence; this nearby town on the Kentucky border was formerly a hub in the steel and shoe industries. Flora prominent in the vicinity of the confluence include ash, walnut, and few pine trees, along with oak-hickory and beech-maple forests and tallgrass prairies. Well-known fauna include wild turkey, waterfowl, deer, and a myriad of fish.
The Portsmouth USEC plant itself has had a very interesting and colorful history. It began in 1952 as a gaseous-diffusion uranium-enrichment plant, converting raw uranium ore (whose uranium contains less than 1% U-235) into weapons-grade U-235. This part of its history reflects its importance in the Cold War between 1954-1964. In 1954, there were 22,000 workers at the height of construction; today there are approximately 1900 employees. Between 1964 and 1991, the plant’s primary purpose was uranium enrichment for Navy nuclear submarines. The mission of the Portsmouth plant changed in 1991; for the next ten years, U-235 was enriched for U.S. nuclear power plants, still an important contributor to the country’s total power needs. Even though no new nuclear power plants have been built in the U.S. in decades, nuclear energy still provides over 20% of the electric power used in the U.S.! Just after my confluence visit, George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter toured U.S. nuclear plants, touting nuclear energy (or, “nuke-u-ler” energy, in Dubya’s case) as a clean source of power, with no greenhouse gas emissions.
In 2001, the Paducah (Kentucky) plant took over gaseous diffusion U-235 enrichment. Today, Piketon employees support USEC’s operational and administrative functions, along with performing external contract work and other activities. In addition, the Portsmouth plant is gearing up for the next generation of uranium-enrichment technology—the American Centrifuge Plant. A prototype centrifuge is expected to be in operation this year, with the development of a fully functional plant beginning in 2006. This technology is a quantum leap in capability, largely given the enormous power requirements for gaseous diffusion enrichment. When the USEC Portsmouth plant was running at full capacity, it used one-sixth of the electricity used by the entire state of Ohio! Centrifuge-based U-235 enrichment plants use much less power (95% less than gaseous diffusion!), with much greater efficiency and much lower production costs.
Uranium enrichment generally proceeds in six steps: mining, milling, conversion, enrichment, fabrication, and power production. Uranium ore, whose uranium contains 0.7% U-235, is mined from the earth. It is then processed to form yellowcake, which is then converted to uranium hexafluoride. This gas may then be enriched to 4-5% U-235 through gaseous diffusion or centrifugal force, thanks to the different isotopic masses of uranium present. After enrichment, the U-235-rich gas is converted into uranium dioxide, formed into solid cylinders (pellets), sealed in metal fuel rods, and bundled. These rods are then ready for nuclear fission power plants. Incidentally, USEC also is the U.S. executive agent for the “Megatons to Megawatts” program, essentially the opposite of U-235 enrichment! This is a twenty-year, eight-billion-dollar program to recycle the equivalent of 20,000 Russian nuclear warheads into electricity-generating fuel, and it doesn’t cost U.S. taxpayers one thin dime! Talk about beating swords into plowshares!
After successfully bagging my eighteenth confluence, I bid adieu to Jack and set off for the Columbus airport, definitely behind schedule. I wanted to get a picture of the American Centrifuge Facility sign and have dessert at Emmitt House, but my schedule was prohibitive. I caught a few drops of rain, gassed up the Dodge Neon as I approached Columbus, and stopped for a photo of clouds and trees, two foreign concepts to a Southern Californian. There were two freeway accidents in Columbus along my route, coupled with normal rush-hour traffic. I returned my rental car with three minutes to spare—whew! My 29-minute flight from Columbus to Cincinnati was uneventful, with my spacious exit-row aisle seat. The plane was relatively empty and I slept soundly, if briefly, before touchdown. Against my better judgment, I loaded up on the crushed garlic for my Sbarro slice in the Cincinnati airport, perhaps hoping it would garner a row to myself on the four-hour flight to LAX.
My fourth flight within 24 hours was uneventful as well, though completely full. I felt really bad for this one nice flight attendant, who was berated for lack of pillows, blankets, a failed reading light, and a non-reclining seat ahead of my exit row. She kept her good humor throughout, but really looked weary of the constant verbal abuse. I took her aside (reeking of the stinking rose, unfortunately), and told her, “I just wanted to tell you I’m on my fourth Delta flight within 24 hours. All flights were on time, and everyone at Delta was very courteous. I think you should get to hear positive feedback once in a while, too.” I thought she was going to cry in appreciation! She offered me free drinks for the remainder of the flight, but I opted for water and OJ instead. I slept off and on, enjoyed an early arrival to LAX, and returned home to crash at 1:30 am. The next day I was up bright and early at 7 am, anxious to finish a cost planning class at work, and secure in the knowledge that there remains only one land-based virgin confluence in the 48 states!
I’d like to thank all of the folks at USEC Portsmouth who made this visit possible, especially Jack, Janie, and Angie. Thanks for trusting an outsider (from California, no less) to document this confluence legally. Incidentally, the USEC folks would like me to mention that future visits to this confluence are discouraged. I’d also like to thank all the teachers, students, and administrators at Maryland School in Columbus. Doing outreach with your wide-eyed, inquisitive pupils was one of the highlights of this fabulous trip. Finally, a special thanks to Jenny, Jeff, Nate, and Sam—it was just great seeing you again! You were such gracious hosts through this whirlwind trip, and I thank you deeply. It was pleasure closing out the primary confluences in the great state of Ohio, as I have done in Wyoming, Texas, Georgia, Montana, and New Mexico (the latter with Steve Adams ). Watch out, Nevada—you’re next!