With Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham expected to make a recommendation to President Bush sometime this winter about the Yucca Mountain project, a General Accounting Office audit has raised serious questions about the energy department's investigation into the proposed nuclear waste dump site.
The report, which was leaked to the press on Nov. 30, notes that the DOE is still gathering information on 293 technical issues "needed for an adequate (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) license application," and says that big questions remain about proposed containment measures, the suitability of the site itself, and the mathematical models which the department is using to evaluate it. The report also says that, based on information from contract manager Bechtel SAIC, the dump may not be open before 2015.
The GAO recommends that Abraham wait several years to make a decision, until studies are complete, and it calls for a re-evaluation of cost and schedule estimates and accountability.
The leaked report comes on the heels of a revelation that Chicago law firm Winston & Strawn was working with the DOE on the Yucca Mountain project at the same time it was a lobbyist for the Nuclear Energy Institute, a nuclear power trade group.
In early December, Bechtel challenged the GAO's findings and Secretary Abraham called the audit "fatally flawed." But Robert Loux, head of Nevada's Agency for Nuclear Projects, says that the DOE's reaction is "damage control."
"It's not the report that's flawed; it's the program that's fatally flawed," says Loux. "These boys are in deep trouble."