From: Erica Werner, Associated Press
Published April 5, 2005 12:00 AM

Yucca Mountain E-mails Not Likely to Discredit Project, DOE Concluded

WASHINGTON — Energy Department officials concluded last month that e-mails by Yucca Mountain workers talking about making up data "are not likely to discredit or bring into question" key scientific conclusions about the proposed nuclear waste dump site, according to internal department documents.


The memos, released Monday by a congressional committee, also indicate department officials learned about the problem in early December -- more than three months before making it public in mid-March.


And while saying that "the potential for significant technical impacts is believed to be low," one memo dated March 15, the day before the problem was made public, acknowledges that "the credibility and defensibility of the (U.S. Geological Survey) technical work supporting the project is brought into question."


The names of authors and recipients and some proper nouns and sections of text were blacked out by the subcommittee staff to avoid compromising ongoing investigations by the FBI and the inspectors general at the departments of Interior and Energy.


At issue are dozens of e-mails written between 1998 and 2000, mainly by two USGS field workers studying how water moves through the proposed waste dump site 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nev. The USGS validated Energy Department conclusions that water seepage was relatively slow, so radiation would be less likely to escape.


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The e-mails, portions of which were released last Friday, show the workers discussing concocting facts and keeping two sets of figures, one for themselves and one to show quality assurance officers.


"If they need more proof, I will be happy to make up more stuff," one message said.


The House Government Reform Subcommittee on the Federal Work Force and Agency Organization, chaired by Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev., is holding a hearing on the issue Tuesday. Late Monday the subcommittee released some Department of Energy memos -- written around the time the e-mails surfaced -- about what they meant and "talking points" about how to respond.


The newly released memos show officials deeply concerned about the effect of the e-mails on the project -- but also insistent about sticking to the message that no real harm to the underlying science was done.


"Depending on the current status of the work to which he contributed, these e-mails may create a substantial vulnerability for the program," says a second memo, apparently referring to the principle author of the e-mails. The page that includes that assessment is almost entirely blacked out.


A third memo has a section entitled "key points for your discussion with the secretary." Among those points: "We do not believe that the questionable data has any meaningful effect on the results supporting the site recommendation."


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


The memos show that the individuals named 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 reaches the depths of the proposed underground waste repository. 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.


The e-mails were only the latest setback for the program, which has also suffered from a shortage of money and an appeals court decision last summer that is forcing revision of radiation exposure limits for the site. A planned completion date of 2010 was recently abandoned by Department of Energy officials. They have yet to set a new date.


Source: Associated Press


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