Inquiry Begins Into Validity of Data About Yucca Mountain

Times Staff Writer

Two federal agencies launched investigations Wednesday into evidence that government scientists had submitted phony data to help prove that a proposed nuclear dump at Yucca Mountain in Nevada would be safe.

The disclosure could delay the long-troubled project and undermine assurances that the waste dump would pose no harm to the public for thousands of years.

But Energy Department officials cautioned Wednesday that even if some data were falsified, it would not necessarily discredit all the research.


Department lawyers discovered a series of e-mail exchanges between scientists that discussed fabricating documentation for a key scientific study about ground water penetration into Yucca Mountain.

The study was conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey, a part of the Interior Department. It concluded that the deep tunnels intended to hold radioactive waste inside Yucca Mountain would remain dry for thousands of years, and that radiation could not quickly leak into the ground water.

That scientific question is one of the most critical surrounding Yucca Mountain, a complex engineering project that is running 14 years behind schedule and could end up costing $100 billion. The mountain is supposed to safely isolate radioactive materials for hundreds of thousands of years.

Energy and Interior Department officials said they would launch investigations into the allegedly fabricated data.

Nonetheless, Wednesday’s disclosure inflamed opponents in Nevada, who long have said that the federal government rigged its scientific research to get the dump licensed as soon as possible.

“This proves once again that DOE must cheat and lie in order to make Yucca Mountain look safe,” said Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “We aren’t just talking about false documentation on paper -- this is about the health and safety of Nevadans and the American people. It is abundantly clear that there is no such thing as ‘sound science’ at Yucca Mountain.”

The project is opposed by Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Nevada, including GOP Gov. Kenny Guinn, who said he was outraged by the disclosure. The investigations come at a time when Nevada has won a series of political and legal victories against the project, setting it back years and raising doubts whether it will ever be built.

Robert R. Loux, executive director of the Nevada Office for Nuclear Projects, said the apparent falsification of data raised grave doubts about the safety of the site and, at the least, would force the Energy Department to replicate years of past research to show that rain water does not rapidly flow through fissures in the mountain.

The Energy Department has done two studies of water penetration at Yucca Mountain.

The first was conducted by scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory, who concluded that water moved through fissures in the mountain relatively quickly, not in hundreds of years as previously thought. The study found traces of isotopes created during atomic bomb testing after World War II, showing rain water had penetrated the rock in decades.

After the Los Alamos study, the Energy Department contracted with the USGS, which backed up the department’s contention that water migrated very slowly through the volcanic rock. As a result, Energy officials concluded that special alloy casks containing high-level nuclear waste would not corrode for at least 10,000 years, and that any leakage in future millenniums would not be flushed into the ground water table.

If the USGS study is discredited, the Energy Department will be left with one scientific study that fails to support its claims about the project’s safety. A third study is underway at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

The Energy Department has issued about 70 different contracts for studies to examine safety and engineering issues involving Yucca Mountain. The repository would hold 70,000 metric tons of high-level waste, most of it from commercial nuclear power plants across the nation.

Loux said that if the water penetration study was falsified, he was concerned about the validity of other research into possible volcanism and earthquakes that could affect the site.

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said Wednesday that he was disturbed by the possible fabrications and launched a scientific review to determine whether the USGS study was deficient. Meanwhile, USGS Director Charles G. Groat said the e-mails disclosing the possible fabrications were sent by two scientists from 1998 to 2000, while the Energy Department was going through a period of quality assurance and wanted documentation of the studies.

Officials close to the investigation said that in the e-mails, the scientists said that they had no idea about the origin and timing of certain geologic samples involved in the study and would make up the data. At least two key scientists exchanged the e-mails, but copies might have been sent to a larger circle of experts.

The Energy Department has not released the e-mails, although Nevada officials have made formal requests. The e-mails were uncovered by attorneys for a private law firm working for the Department, who were examining millions of e-mails to determine whether some of them were subject to confidentiality. All the e-mails eventually will be posted on a website that will be used during the licensing process for Yucca Mountain.

Grout said he referred the issue to the Interior Department’s inspector general and initiated an internal USGS investigation.

The discovery was disclosed to members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday and then announced in news releases by the USGS and the Energy Department.