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Know the West

'Sound science' in doubt at Yucca Mountain

E-mails show federal employees circumvented quality assurance procedures


Office e-mail banter sometimes stirs up talk around the water cooler. But recently disclosed electronic mail about Yucca Mountain, the proposed permanent home for 70,000 metric tons of nuclear waste, has spawned three separate federal investigations.

On March 16, the Department of Energy announced that between 1998 and 2000, U.S. Geological Survey hydrologists may have falsified information about studies at southern Nevada’s Yucca Mountain — where spent fuel from more than 100 commercial nuclear reactors in the United States may someday be stored.

"I’ve made up the dates and names," says one of the e-mails from an agency employee. "This is as good as it’s going to get. If they need more proof, I will be happy to make up more stuff."

Yucca Mountain was originally selected because of its arid location, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas in the Mojave Desert. Ironically, the main controversy over the site’s safety involves water, since groundwater pathways were discovered under the mountain (HCN, 07/02/01: Can Nevada Bury Yucca Mountain?). So far, the Department of Energy has spent over $8 billion on site development and on studies and computer models, some of which are discussed in the e-mails. Researchers are trying to determine how much water will reach the repository over the next 10,000 years, how quickly the nuclear waste casks will corrode, and at what rate radioactivity might contaminate surrounding areas.

In 2004, during his re-election campaign, President Bush promised Nevada residents that work on Yucca Mountain would proceed based on "sound science." But the e-mails raise serious questions about the integrity of that science.

"In the end I keep track of 2 sets of files, the ones that will keep (quality assurance) happy and the ones that were actually used," reads a message from one scientist, apparently disgruntled with the quality-assurance process.

The e-mails came to light when Department of Energy contractors were examining millions of documents as part of the license application process for the repository. According to a department spokesperson, the reviewers discovered the e-mails in December and alerted agency managers in March.

The correspondence, among about 10 USGS employees, creates a somewhat fragmented picture; names and some other details have been removed. But it contains frequent references to fudging information and reminders to delete the messages. "Some nights I have a hard time going to sleep because I realize the importance of trying to get the right answer, and I know how many serious unknowns are still out there, and how many quick fixes are still holding things together," says one message. "I’m just trying the best I can with 3 equations and 15 unknowns."

Yucca Mountain’s opponents lost no time in using the e-mails to poke yet more holes into the project’s viability. "During the past year, the country has seen CEOs of major industries dragged before the courts for cooking the books and fabricating information to make corporate profits appear better than they were in reality," says Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn, R, in written testimony. "I see no difference between those scandals and what appears to have occurred in DOE’s Yucca Mountain program."

Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev., called a congressional subcommittee hearing on April 5 to determine whether the falsified data compromised scientific conclusions about the site’s safety. There, Ted Garrish, DOE’s deputy director of radioactive waste management, testified, "This appears to be a lapse in quality assurance protocol, and at this time, we have no evidence that the underlying science was affected." But an Energy Department spokesperson noted that Garrish’s statement was based on preliminary reviews; the agency will not make a definitive statement until the investigations are complete.

On April 6, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman announced that during the investigations, work on the repository’s license application would continue. The inspector generals of both the Department of Energy and the Department of the Interior, which oversees the U.S. Geological Survey, have launched investigations, but neither will comment on the details. A Federal Bureau of Investigation spokesperson says that agency is close to finishing its inquiry into whether the U.S. criminal code has been violated. In the meantime, Rep. Porter has asked the two primary authors of the e-mails, both of whom still work for the USGS, to testify before Congress.

The author is an HCN intern.

The searchable database of Yucca Mountain documents is at www.lsnnet.gov/ .
The released e-mails are at gov.state.nv.us/pr/2005/04-01-05FalseYuccaMtnJP.htm