No Criminal Charges in Yucca Mountain Email Science Scandal

WASHINGTON, DC, April 28, 2006 (ENS) – Federal prosecutors have decided not to file criminal charges against three government workers who allegedly falsified water research data on the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository project. A report by Department of Energy (DOE) Inspector General Gregory Friedman released Tuesday stops short of recommending criminal prosecutions.

The workers were running computer models on water infiltration and climate, crucial factors in determining the overall safety of a potential nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain. Water permeation at the repository could corrode containers holding nuclear waste, resulting in radioactive leaks.

The DOE is attempting to obtain a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to construct a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, located at the edge of the Nevada Test Site, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Joseph Hevesi is the primary author of the emails that appear to indicate the data used in scientific studies at the Yucca Mountain Project was falsified. During the time period in question from 1995 through 2000, Hevesi worked as a hydrologist on the Yucca Mountain Project for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), which was contracted by the DOE. Since then, Hevesi has moved to Sacramento, California where he continues to work as a scientist for USGS.


Yucca Mountain, Nevada is the site of the proposed first U.S. high-level nuclear waste respository. (Photo courtesy Congressman Jim Gibbons)
Hevesi denies having falsified any Yucca Mountain documents. Testifying under subpoena last July before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce and Agency Organization, Hevesi said, "I have never falsified any documents related to Yucca Mountain, or any other project."

One incriminating email, dated 3/30/2000, reads, "The programs, of course, are all already installed otherwise the ___ would not exist. I don’t have a clue when these programs were installed. So I’ve made up the dates and names (see red edits below). This is as good as its going to get. If they need more proof, I will be happy to make up more stuff, as long as its not a video recording of the software being installed.”

Although Hevesi and the two other USGS workers whose names appeared on suspect emails, Alan Flint and Lorraine Flint, will not be charged in the matter, Nevada’s two senators say the Inspector General's report supports their view that the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear dump is unsafe and scientifically unsound.

Senator John Ensign, a Republican, and Senator Harry Reid, a Democrat who serves as Senate Minority Leader, asked for the investigation after emails surfaced last year indicating that government scientists working for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) falsified some test results for the Yucca Mountain project.

The tests looked at water infiltration at the proposed geologic repository. The falsified work compromised quality assurance requirements and raised questions about the accuracy of other health and safety data related to the Yucca Mountain project.

President George W. Bush and Congress have approved the site which is planned as the permanent storage site for at least 77,000 tons of high-level radioactive waste from power plants and Department of Defense sites across the country.

The Inspector General of the Department of Energy, the Inspector General of the Department of the Interior, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation looked into the allegations that USGS employees had falsified water infiltration data.

In a memo to Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman dated April 25, 2006, DOE Inspector General Friedman says that investigators interviewed 70 current and former employees of the DOE, Yucca Mountain contractors, and the USGS. They analyzed 150,000 emails written from 1998 through 2005.

As a factor in the decision that federal prosecutors would not pursue criminal charges, Friedman mentioned the length of time between when the emails were written and when they were discovered as obstacles to building a case.


Moisture migration experiment in the Yucca Mountain tunnel. March 1998. (Photo courtesy YMP)
The emails were written in the 1998-2000 time period, and were not disclosed to senior DOE officials until March 2005. The investigation found that the emails were read by at least one USGS supervisor and one quality assurance official at the time they were written, but the contents appear to have gone unchallenged.

The Inspector General wrote, "The nearly six year delay in surfacing and appropriately dealing with the controversial emails was inconsistent with sound quality assurance protocols."

There was a further four month delay from the time that an email review team at Yucca Mountain contractor Bechtel suggested that the emails contained falsified data and the time the suspect emails were sent to responsible Yucca Mountain officials.

Other required scientific records were not kept, and when the deficiency was discovered, the requirements were waived, the investigation revealed.

The Inspector General's report noted that “the actions of those involved, which have been described by observers as irresponsible and reckless, have had the effect of undermining public confidence in the quality of the science associated with the Yucca Mountain Project.”

Senators Ensign and Reid say the decision not to prosecute has no impact on their opposition to Yucca Mountain.

“The prospect of criminal prosecutions is secondary to the underlying fact that the science presented by the USGS and the DOE is faulty, misguided and fraudulent,” said Ensign.

“The emails in question show clearly that data has been manipulated or fabricated, and the ensuing hearings have brought this important aspect to light," Ensign said. "No case has been made, nor can it be made, that the storage of high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain is scientifically sound.

"I intend to thoroughly review the Attorney General’s report," Ensign said, "but regardless of the AG’s findings, the scientific case put forth by Yucca Mountain supporters is as weak as ever.”


Hydrology experiment in the test tunnel under Yucca Mountain. April 2001. (Photo courtesy YMP)
“The science that DOE claims is supporting Yucca Mountain is sloppy, and in some cases it’s actually false,” said Reid. “That’s a much bigger concern than whether a couple of employees will go to jail. The Yucca Mountain project is a complete failure. It has failed every legitimate health, safety, and scientific test. I’m going to continue working to stop Yucca Mountain altogether.”

More evidence of problems at Yucca Mountain was revealed to the same Congressional panel this week.

On Tuesday, Jim Wells, director of the Natural Resources and Environment Division of the General Acountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, testified that the DOE's planned nuclear waste repository faces recurring quality assurance and management challenges.

First, Wells told the House Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce and Agency Organization, the DOE has about 14 million more Yucca Mountain project emails to review in its efforts to restore confidence in scientific documents because of the quality assurance problems shown in the emails between project employees.

Second, he said, the DOE faces quality assurance challenges in resolving design control problems associated with its requirements management process - the process for ensuring that high-level plans and regulatory requirements are incorporated into specific engineering details. Problems with the process led to the December 2005 suspension of certain project work.

Third, DOE continues to be challenged to manage a complex program and organization. Significant personnel and project changes initiated in October 2005 create the potential for earlier problem areas, such as confusion over roles and responsibilities, to reoccur.

The DOE has had a long history of quality assurance problems at the Yucca Mountain project, Wells said.

In the 1980s and 1990s, DOE had problems assuring NRC that it had developed adequate plans and procedures related to quality assurance. More recently, as it prepares to submit a license application for the repository to NRC, Wells told the panel that DOE has been relying on costly and time-consuming rework to resolve lingering quality assurance problems uncovered during audits and after-the-fact evaluations.