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Nevada Officials Call for Halt to Work at Yucca Mountain

WASHINGTON, DC, April 5, 2005, (ENS) - Nevada elected officials of both parties told the House Government Reform Subcommittee today that the apparent falsification of data used to support licensing the Yucca Mountain Project in Nevada is reason enough to stop development of the nuclear waste repository. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced in March that emails between federal employees raised suspicions that documents and models about water infiltration at Yucca Mountain have been falsified.

Isolation of the 77,000 tons of highly radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain for the required 10,000 years depends upon keeping the containers in which it will be stored dry so that they do not corrode and leak.

The site 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas has been selected by Congress and the President for underground disposal of used nuclear fuel from power plants and high-level waste from U.S. defense programs. The DOE is in the process of seeking licenses from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build and operate a repository at Yucca Mountain.

Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn, a Republican who has consistently opposed the Yucca Mountain Project, told the subcommittee today that it is time to "find a way to make this fraudulent, bankrupt and unnecessary project stop, not only for the sake of the of the people and environment in my state, but in the best interests of the country as a whole."

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Nevada officials testify before the House Government Reform Subcommittee today. From left: Senator John Ensign, Governor Kenny Guinn and Attorney General Brian Sandoval (Photo courtesy Office of Senator Ensign)
Guinn told the subcommittee that less than a month after he was elected governor in 1999, he co-authored a letter with then-governor Bob Miller to then Energy Secretary Bill Richardson urging that Yucca Mountain be immediately disqualified as a repository site, citing "strong and compelling scientific evidence indicating the site was incapable of safely isolating deadly radioactive waste."

"One of the main points raised in that letter was, ironically, the existence of very rapid groundwater pathways and evidence showing that rapid water movement through the site would expedite the corrosion of waste disposal containers underground at Yucca Mountain and very quickly transport radioactive materials to the aquifer and from there to water sources used by people and communities," Guinn said.

Guinn said it is probable that the information Richardson relied on in denying his request was based on "fabricated data," since the data believed to have been falsified involved U.S. Geological Survey studies of groundwater movement at Yucca Mountain.

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman announced March 16, “During the document review process associated with the Licensing Support Network preparation for the Yucca Mountain project, DOE contractors discovered multiple emails written between May 1998 and March 2000, in which a USGS employee indicated that he had fabricated documentation of his work."

"It is certainly suspicious, if not outright incriminating," Guinn said today, "that those USGS studies were ordered by DOE in an attempt to contradict earlier DOE and state of Nevada research findings that were not to DOE’s liking."

“In 2002, when President [George W.] Bush, acting on Secretary Abraham’s advice, recommended that Congress endorse continuing the Yucca Mountain program, he was likely also acting on information that was grounded in falsified data," said Guinn. "The President personally told me that he would base his decision on sound science."

Guinn

Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn (Photo courtesy Office of the Governor)
Governor Guinn was permitted a veto of the Yucca Mountain Project, and he did veto it, but Congress overrode his veto to allow the nuclear waste repository to proceed.

“I wonder how many of you in Congress, who voted in the summer of 2002 to override my veto of the project, would have done so if you had known that a fundamental underpinning of the Yucca Mountain project was based on fraudulent and intentionally falsified data," the governor said today.

Before becoming Nevada’s governor, Guinn was the CEO for the largest utility company in Nevada, Southwest Gas, and for more than a year he was the acting president at University of Nevada-Las Vegas (UNLV).

"If any scientists or engineers working for me were found to have fabricated or otherwise misrepresented information regarding academic work at UNLV or any Southwest Gas project, they would have been dealt with swiftly and harshly," Guinn said today.

“Yet, here we sit today, three weeks since Secretary Bodman disclosed the existence of falsified Yucca Mountain data, and no one has been permitted to see the emails in question or interview the scientists involved. What we get from DOE is obfuscating and damage control."

Nevada Senator John Ensign, a Republican, has seen several of the emails. "I’m stunned by the number of references to deleting and destroying emails, fudging information and not telling anyone how something was done," Ensign said on Friday.

"From ‘I will be happy to make up more stuff’ to ‘Science by peer pressure is dangerous but sometime [sic] it is necessary,’ the emails are proof that the only thing necessary at this point is that we get to the truth," Ensign said. "It seems that Yucca Mountain’s destiny is that of a mountain of lies and nothing else.”

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A Yucca Mountain Project scientist tests for water movement in rock inside Yucca Mountain. (Photo courtesy YMP)
In his testimony to the subcommittee today, Ensign warned that the emails refer to fabricating information about an essential element of safety at Yucca Mountain. "The fact that the alleged fraud deals with the issue of water infiltration is critical because it impacts the corrosion of casks and the containment of radioactivity," he said.

“We’re not talking about how realistic this scenario would be for a science fiction novel or a movie script," Ensign said. "The corrosion of casks and the containment of radioactivity are frightening realities that Nevadans and all Americans face should this project proceed based on fraudulent science.”

Ensign and Nevada Senator Harry Reid, a Democrat who serves as Senate Minority Leader, have jointly demanded that the DOE and all contractors suspend all work related to the license application for Yucca Mountain project.

"The Department should wait until the investigations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Justice, the Inspector Generals at the Department of Energy and the Department of the Interior into the falsified documents is completed," Reid told the subcommittee today.

"It is clear that scientific malpractice has occurred and fundamental questions about the quality, validity and integrity of the scientific review and quality assurance processes associated with the project must first be answered," he said.

"I do not believe Yucca Mountain will ever open," Reid said, "and Nevada and our nation will be safer for our successful efforts to stop the project."

Reid listed for the subcommittee the obstacles that have been placed in the path of the Yucca Mountain Project during the past 12 months as support for his position that the federal government should take responsibility for the nuclear waste at the reactor sites where it was generated.

Reid

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
"This is the right thing to do," said Reid. "I believe nuclear waste should be transferred from spent nuclear fuel pools into dry storage casks and the Department of Energy to take title and responsibility for the waste."

Reid pointed out that the DOE has not studied the transportation issues and there are no assurances that DOE can undertake safely the transport of 77,000 tons of highly radioactive waste from 126 sites in 39 states by rail and road to Yucca Mountain.

"I do not understand how DOE can consider beginning a licensing process for the repository when you do not even know how you would transport all this waste or if you can even do this safely. There is no way to guarantee the health and safety of Nevadans or any other Americans," said Reid.

"It should be obvious to everyone now that Yucca Mountain isn't going anywhere," he said. "It is abundantly clear that there is no such thing as sound science at Yucca Mountain."

Federal officials said investigations are underway into the allegations of fraudulent data, and they will take steps to ensure the science that underlies Yucca Mountain is sound.

Bodman said, "The Department of Energy has initiated a scientific investigation of the data and documentation that was part of this modeling activity. If in the course of that review any work is found to be deficient, it will be replaced or supplemented with analysis and documentation that meets appropriate quality assurance standards to ensure that the scientific basis of the project is sound. We are conducting a thorough review of all work completed by the identified individuals to ensure that other work was not affected. "

USGS Director Chip Groat said March 16, "Serious questions have been raised about quality assurance practices performed in 1998-2000 by USGS scientists on the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository project for the Department of Energy. Two actions are underway to investigate these issues. First, I have referred the matter to the Inspector General for action. Second, I have initiated an internal review of the allegations. Once the facts are known, appropriate actions will be taken. USGS remains committed to maintaining scientific excellence."

Roadblocks on the way to opening the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository over the past 12 months as listed by Senator Reid today are:

  • On April 30, 2004, the Government Accountability Office issued a report on the quality assurance problems with the project, finding that the DOE “have not solved the quality assurance problems or corrected management weaknesses, and that future actions are needed . . . and the quality assurance problems could delay the licensing process.”

  • On July 9, 2004 the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the people of Nevada in an argument to stop the Yucca Mountain project. The court decided that U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's radiation standard for the site is not stringent enough to protect the public from the significant risks associated with nuclear waste and failed to follow the recommendation by the National Academy of Sciences.

  • On August 31, 2004 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board rejected DOE’s Yucca Mountain document database, saying it had failed to make public many of the documents that it had in its possession.

  • The Licensing Board said, “Given the 15 years that DOE had to gather, review, and produce its documents and the fact that the date of production, and the incompleteness of its privilege review, it is clear to us that DOE did not meet its obligation, in good faith, to make all reasonable efforts to make all documentary materials available.”

  • On October 4, 2004, the DOE Inspector General found that DOE gave away more than $500,000 worth of Yucca Mountain construction equipment in 2003. Half a million dollars in most people’s lives is a lot of money.

  • On November 22, 2004 the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board said the DOE does not have a plan for safely transporting nuclear waste to the proposed repository.

  • On February 7, 2005 Dr. Margaret Chu, most recently the director of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Nuclear Waste, said the project would be delayed until 2012 and DOE’s license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would not be filed until December, a year after the application was expected to have been filed.

  • On February 8, 2005 the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board called for hearings in May to review concerns over the corrosion of the titanium drip shields that are intended to keep water from leaking into casks inside Yucca Mountain.

  • On February 28, 2005, a DOE official said the proposed Yucca Mountain repository may not open until 2017.


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