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Scientists suspected of falsifying documents on nuclear waste site

WASHINGTON—Federal scientists may have falsified documents on a key safety issue for the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste dump, two federal agencies said Wednesday.

If the allegations prove true, it could delay and possibly kill the controversial plan to bury nuclear waste in a mountain 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas starting in about a dozen years. That would be a major blow to the stalled Bush energy plan, which calls for building new nuclear-power plants provided there's someplace to store their waste, said Henry Lee, a Harvard University energy and environment professor.

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said "certain employees of the U.S. Geological Survey ... may have falsified documentation of their work" on Yucca Mountain from 1998 to 2000. The Energy Department declined to reveal specifics.

The falsification charge involves about 10 employees of the U.S. Geological Survey, the scientific arm of the Interior Department, which was hired to do scientific analysis of water and geology at the site, USGS spokeswoman A.B. Wade said. Suspicions of falsification arose after the discovery of about 20 e-mails among USGS employees that didn't admit to falsifying documents but gave the impression that something was amiss.

The falsification investigation is focused on the $58 billion project's most contentious scientific safety question: Can water seep into the waste site?

The Energy Department has long maintained that little or no water penetrates 800 feet into the mountain, where 154 million pounds of radioactive nuclear waste will be stored in metal containers. Government studies have supported that claim. Opponents—including some scientists and the state of Nevada—have contended that water could get into the mountain, corrode the canisters, then seep out as radioactive water to where people live.

"Everything is about water," Michael Voegele, the chief scientist for Bechtel SAIC, the contractor operating Yucca Mountain, said in an interview three years ago.

"Water is the absolute key to knowing whether Yucca Mountain is determined safe or not," said Bob Loux, the executive director of Nevada's nuclear projects office and a fierce foe of the waste site. "It's very disturbing, in the sense that there's a heck of a lot of trust—not necessarily in Nevada, but in the Department of Energy—in conducting these studies in a scientific manner."

The potential for falsification—which Bechtel discovered last week—calls into question the science behind the Yucca program. That will require proponents to start anew with scientific justification of the more than 20-year-old program, Harvard's Lee said.

"Holy mackerel, what were they thinking?" Lee said. "In order to gain credibility back again, you've got to do this almost all over again."

The plan for storing the waste hasn't been submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for approval. That process was delayed because not all of the scientific documentation—including the documents now in question—has been submitted to the NRC.

The NRC, which has final say on whether the waste site opens, is "following certainly with interest what they (the Energy Department) are doing," spokeswoman Sue Gagner said.

The nuclear industry and the Energy Department expressed confidence Wednesday that Yucca will be safe.

"We'll just have to see what happens from this point forward," said Steve Kerekes, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's trade group. "We believe it's been shown to be a suitable site."

Bodman promised that, regarding Yucca, "all related decisions have been, and will continue to be, based on sound science."

Attorney Geoff Fettus of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group opposed to the Yucca Mountain site, said "they need to openly disclose what was falsified, what the extent of it was and what they are going to do to solve it."

The Energy Department and the USGS promise investigations. The USGS hasn't reprimanded or suspended the employees who are suspected.

Lee said there was still a dire need to do something about the millions of pounds of nuclear waste sitting at nuclear power plants across the country.

Bodman agreed: "The fact remains that this country needs a permanent geological nuclear-waste repository, and the administration will continue to aggressively pursue that goal. We are committed to the safety and protection of the citizens of Nevada as we pursue the development of the Yucca Mountain project."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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