Fraud at Yucca Mountain?

Lawmakers summoned top Energy and Interior department officials to explain e-mails in which scientists on the Yucca Mountain project talk about inventing facts, keeping two sets of records and deleting data that didn’t get a desired result.

A congressional panel chaired by Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev., planned to question the Energy Department official overseeing the nuclear waste dump project, along with the head of the U.S. Geological Survey, whose employees authored the e-mails. Also on the witness list were the inspectors general of both departments, who are conducting investigations.

In advance of the hearing set for Tuesday, Porter’s House Government Reform federal work force and agency organization subcommittee last week released portions of the dozens of e-mails, written between 1998 and 2000, that show workers discussing concocting facts and keeping two sets of figures, one for themselves and one to show quality assurance officers.

In one a USGS scientist writes: “I don’t have a clue when these programs were installed. So I’ve made up the dates and names. … This is as good as it’s going to get. If they need more proof, I will be happy to make up more stuff.”

Nevada officials have seized on the e-mails as the newest reason to kill the project. Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn and others were testifying Tuesday.

The subcommittee released a new batch of documents late Monday, including internal Energy Department memos written as the e-mails were about to be made public last month.

The memos show department officials were deeply concerned about the effect of the e-mails on the faltering Yucca Mountain project, but also that they concluded no real harm had been done to the underlying science.

“Depending on the current status of the work to which he contributed, these e-mails may create a substantial vulnerability for the program,” says one memo, apparently referring to the principle author of the e-mails.

A second has a section entitled “key points for your discussion with the secretary.” Among them: “We do not believe that the questionable data has any meaningful effect on the results supporting the site recommendation.”

The memos also indicate department officials learned about the problem in early December, more than three months before making it public. The names of authors and recipients and some sections of text were blacked out because of investigations by the FBI and inspectors general.

An Energy Department spokeswoman declined comment because of the continuing investigations.

The memos show that the workers involved in the e-mails created 150 or more reports and data sets. They were producing data used to estimate how much precipitation that falls on Yucca Mountain reaches the depths of the proposed underground waste repository. The USGS validated Energy Department conclusions that water seepage was relatively slow, so radiation would be less likely to escape.

But the memos say that because large uncertainty factors are assumed in an overall program assessment, the potentially manipulated records probably didn’t change outcomes.

Yucca Mountain, approved by Congress in 2002, is planned as the nation’s repository for 77,000 tons of radioactive defense waste and used reactor fuel from commercial power plants. The material is supposed to be buried for at least 10,000 years beneath the Nevada desert 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

A planned completion date of 2010 was recently abandoned by Energy Department officials. They have yet to set a new date.

On the Net:

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State of Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects:

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© 2005 The Associated Press