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Investigation of Nuclear Dump Study Is Urged

Nevada lawmakers demand probe of allegations that Energy Department ignored misgivings about Yucca Mountain as a waste site.

November 27, 2002|Tom Gorman | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — Nevada's congressional delegation is demanding an investigation into claims that the Energy Department ignored consultants' misgivings about the use of Yucca Mountain to store nuclear waste -- and then punished the critics.

The allegations bolster concerns that the White House is "charging forward with so [few] facts" in support of the $70-billion project, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday.

"Scientists who don't agree with the plan are given short shrift," Reid said. "It's obvious that Yucca Mountain is on the fast track, because of the strength of the power industry in this administration."

President Bush, with congressional support and at the urging of the nuclear power industry, has championed burying the waste at Yucca Mountain because storage space is running out at the nation's nuclear power plants. Nevada has filed various lawsuits to stop the project, which the government hopes to open in 2010.

Reid and Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) asked late Monday for a congressional investigation into the claims that the Energy Department shrugged off scientific anxieties about the project.

"We are extremely concerned about these troubling reports of significant quality-assurance problems and mistreatment of federal employees, who have attempted to identify and inform others of these problems," they wrote.

Energy Department spokesman Joe Davis said the agency "thoroughly and completely stands behind our scientific studies."

The final arbiter in assessing the integrity of the studies will be the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which must license the facility, he said.

The senators' letter was triggered by a report in the Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper that a consulting science engineer on the project was fired and a quality-assurance manger was reassigned after raising concerns about studies that led to the selection of Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, to store 77,000 tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste.

The fired employee, Jim Mattimoe, won a job-reinstatement order from the Department of Labor that is being appealed by his former employer. In the meantime, he is working at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

The senators said they also had received anonymous letters that raised the specter that a "significant" amount of project data had been lost.

Davis said he knew of no data loss and that there are several backups of the computerized data used to generate modeling programs of Yucca's operations.

The senators asked David Walker, who heads the General Accounting Office -- the investigative arm of Congress -- to look into "the treatment of whistle-blowers at the Yucca Mountain project and the quality-assurance problems raised by these and other whistle-blowers."

Nevada's two House members also weighed in.

"Serious doubts and concerns about Yucca Mountain's suitability just continue to mount," Republican Rep. Jim Gibbons said. "It is time to stop the project now, before it's too late."

In a letter to Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley said the reports "make apparent that [the Energy Department] is covering up persistent problems." She asked for assurances from Abraham that whistle-blowers "are protected and treated as a valuable and necessary part" of his staff.

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