Nevada officials and the state’s congressional delegation are calling for a halt to the USA’s Yucca Mountain repository project and establishment of an independent investigative board to look into a series of emails that indicate key scientific data may have been falsified. The data concerns US Geological Survey (USGS) work on ground water movement through the repository horizon.
On 5 April, the House Government Reform Committee’s Subcommittee on Federal Workforce and Agency Organisation, under the chairmanship of Nevada’s Jon Porter, held the first of a series of hearings on the allegations of data fraud. Opening the hearing, Porter said that hours before the hearing he had obtained more documents pointing to worse incidences of fraud than those he had already made public. He called on the Justice Department to seal all the millions of documents generated by the project so none could be destroyed.
Virtually all of the state’s top officials, including the governor, the attorney general, and the entire Nevada congressional delegation testified at the hearing, as did the USGS director; the deputy director of the Department of Energy’s (DoE) Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (responsible for the repository programme); and the inspectors general of the Department of Interior – the parent agency of USGS – and the DoE.
PUBLIC TRUST 'EVISCERATED'
The actions by the USGS scientists “eviscerate” the public trust in government officials, Porter said. “These federal employees were trusted with developing true and honest data relating to Yucca Mountain but choose the very opposite path,” Porter said, calling their actions “nothing short of criminal behavior.”
Virginia representative Tom Davis, who chairs the full Government Reform Committee, echoed these concerns. He said that, while in the past he had not shared his colleague’s strong opposition to the repository program at Yucca Mountain, he still found the allegations very disturbing. Like Porter, Davis said he expected a number of additional hearings on the charges, and noted that, if key data proves to be fraudulent, this will “cast great concern” on the safety as repository program as a whole – as well as leading to public distrust of the entire federal workforce.
Nevada governor Kenny Guinn charged: “the fact that the data may have been intentionally fabricated in service of shoring up predetermined and politically-driven conclusions calls into question the very legitimacy of the entire programme.” He noted that the USGS studies now under suspicion “were ordered by the DoE in an attempt to contradict earlier DoE and state of Nevada research findings that were not to the DoE’s liking.”
Governor Guinn further charged that despite his repeated calls, as well as calls from the Nevada attorney general, and the Nevada congressional delegation, the DoE refused to make available the disputed emails and the other materials that prompted Secretary of Energy Sam Bodman to publicly disclose the likely data falsification. In response to questioning from the committee, governor Guinn said that the DoE has told him that it would give him “some of the data,” only if he would sign a binding legal agreement that it would never be made public. This he has consistently refused to do, insisting that the data should be in the public domain.
These employees were trusted with developing true and honest data relating to Yucca Mountain, but choose the very opposite path
He compared the DoE’s actions to a number of recent cases in which large corporations have faced court sanctions for “cooking the books and fabricating information to make corporate profits appear better than they were in reality,” including the Enron and WorldCom cases.
The “evidence is becoming overwhelming that the Yucca Mountain program is broken beyond repair. The project has lost whatever scientific credibility that might have been remaining,” Governor Guinn concluded.
Some may have known of problems months ago
Under intense questioning from committee members, John Mitchell, president of Bechtel SAIC, the contractor supporting the DoE’s Yucca Mountain activities, admitted that the DoE and contractor officials may have known as early as December 2004 about the existence of internal DoE and contractor emails that allegedly document the data falsification. Although Mitchell maintained that he had learned about the emails only in mid-March, he said the project’s legal counsel knew about the emails four months ago, when employees involved in the review became concerned and discussed the emails with DOE and/or contractor attorneys.
This admission prompted chairman Porter to an adamant declaration that his committee’s investigation was not going to stop with a few people in the field, and that the DoE and Bechtel SAIC were not going to be able to pass this off as an error or misjudgment on the part of a few field scientists. The problems go right to the highest levels, he said.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has joined the original internal probes by the inspector generals from the DoE and Interior, and the effort is now considered a criminal investigation, said DoE inspector general Greg Friedman. Nevada senators Harry Reid and John Ensign asked the FBI to get involved in the investigation on 17 March.
Because USGS is now dealing with a criminal investigation, it has not been able to fire or discipline the scientists involved in the emails – or even discuss the matter with them, USGS director Charles Groat said in response to intense questioning by committee members. They have, however, been transferred to other unidentified projects within USGS – which prompted several committee members to ask what precautions USGS was taking to assure that the same kind of sloppiness, if not outright criminal behaviour, did not contaminate another project.
Along with the ground water emails, the Government Reform subcommittee is investigating a number of other instances of alleged fraud on the Yucca Mountain project that have recently come to its attention. These include a number of instances of fraudulent calibration of monitoring and testing equipment, including calibration data for equipment that neither the DoE nor its contractors possessed, or had access to; and allegations by pipefitters working on the project that they had been ordered to disable or bypass water meters to allow the DOE to exceed its water allocations.
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