All the eggs in Yucca’s basket could be rotten
April 3, 2005
Here’s what the Yucca Mountain falsification of documents investigation appears to be about:
Back in 2000, a U.S. Department of Energy employee named James Raleigh sent an e-mail raising questions about the calibration of equipment used to monitor tests on the flow of water.
In particular, according to a report by Mary O’Driscoll for the Greenwire Web site, Raleigh was concerned that scientists filled out paperwork assuring the equipment was properly calibrated before they had actually received the equipment.
If that’s true, then it would explain the FBI’s involvement in the investigation. The documents say right on them that it’s against the law to falsify the information.
It would also explain the potential house-of-cards effect on the entire DOE project to turn Yucca Mountain into a repository for the nation’s nuclear waste.
Some of the testing in question dates to 1997, which means years of research that followed could have been based on faulty, or at least unverifiable, results.
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Here’s how Raleigh described another problem in an e-mail, according to Greenwire:
Discrepancies in paperwork for a multimeter “would lead an auditor to believe the record had been falsified.”
“It gives the appearance that the proper signature page is not available and another record’s signature page was used in its place,” Raleigh wrote.
How serious could all this be? Couldn’t it just be a matter of some bureaucratic paperwork being shuffled into the wrong cubbyhole?
Yes, it could. But as one of Nevada’s lawyers put it, “It makes you wonder if they did anything right.”
Indeed, this is an $8 billion project involving thousands of people over many years so far – and it hasn’t even gotten started yet.
There are bound to be mistakes along the way. In fact, the DOE’s spin so far has been to say the e-mails may well do nothing more than show the department’s quality-control programs were working correctly.
If mistakes were caught and corrected, if shortcuts were headed off and procedures followed properly, if no data were actually compromised and the science remains sound, then no foul. That kind of damage-control talk is to be expected from the DOE.
But Nevadans are jumping on the disclosures, and for good reason. The fix has been in almost since the beginning, in more ways than one.
The first fix was in the selection of Yucca Mountain to be studied because it appeared to satisfy requirements that humans could be protected from radioactivity in the nuclear waste primarily by geological isolation.
The fact it became the only site to be studied was a political maneuver, yet it might have held up if the initial reasoning had stood up. But it didn’t. The geology at Yucca Mountain won’t protect us from radiation, so the DOE’s mission was changed.
Figure out a way – an engineering solution – to store the waste there, the scientists were told. That’s what they’ve been working on for several years.
Then-Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham made his pronouncement in February 2002 that “sound science supports the determination that the Yucca Mountain site is scientifically and technically suitable for the development of a repository.” President Bush acted on the recommendation, and the DOE began its work to prove that statement to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
As the case has been for more than a decade, Yucca Mountain is a waiting game.
When Nevadans such as Gov. Kenny Guinn and Attorney General Brian Sandoval say the state is winning, they mean we’re winning the waiting game.
Already the project is years behind schedule, even for the postponed 2010 deadline, and there’s no new projection. Certainly the revelation of possible falsification of documents will set it back years more.
Ultimately there are two possible winning scenarios for Nevada in the waiting game – that the nuclear industry gets fed up and begins lobbying for a different political solution, or that science develops a better, safer way to deal with radioactive waste.
Columnist George Will recently accused Nevadans of being NIMBYs because we don’t want a nuclear dump in our back yard. “Nevada is mostly back yard,” notes Will.
Then he goes on to minimize the state’s concerns:
“It is insisting on a degree of certainty – absolute certainty, over 100 millennia – that is unreasonable, even considering the stakes. And it is making testable assertions about geological and metallurgical matters about which scientists are now reaching conclusions that are beyond reasonable doubts.
“Three truths: America must store nuclear waste more safely, can never prove perfect safety forever, and hence cannot store waste anywhere it will be welcomed. An axiom: Put all your eggs in one basket and watch that basket.”
Thanks for the advice, George. Not only do you have the axiom wrong, you overlook the fact that it’s the 39 states producing nuclear waste who are playing the part of NIMBYs.
A nuclear waste site like Yucca Mountain has never before been attempted. That it can be done remains only a theory. If the people researching it can’t get the paperwork right, it seems reasonable to believe Nevada could end up with a basket of rotten eggs.
– Barry Smith is editor of the Carson City Nevada Appeal.
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