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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Yucca Woes

Air Date: Week of

Storing nuclear waste in Nevada's Yucca Mountain has been a long and bitter debate between the federal government and the local residents. Now there are reports that key geological research had been falsified; data that was to determine the safety of the site. Host Steve Curwood talks with Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The proposal to store highly radioactive waste from nuclear power plants and other sources in Yucca Mountain in Nevada has hit yet another snag in its 25-year saga. And, these latest troubles come with possible signs of scandal. The attorney general of Nevada has asked the attorney general of the United States to investigate allegations that key safety data has been falsified. The allegedly falsified data concerns rates of water leakage through Yucca Mountain and was used to assert the project will safely hold the deadly waste for thousands of years. The data was provided by experts working for the U.S. Geological Survey on behalf of the Energy Department, according to e-mails dating back to the Clinton administration and released by the Nevada AG. And, with me now is Jonathan Turley. He's a professor at George Washington University School of Law who's sued the government in several high profile environmental cases. Professor Turley, hello, sir.

TURLEY: Hello.

CURWOOD: Explain to me what's going on there now with this question of falsified measurements.

TURLEY: Well, you could not have a more serious allegation at a more important time. Yucca Mountain has always been controversial and there has been throughout its history, a series of failures or controversies regarding the viability of that site. This is only the latest, but it comes at a critical time. President Bush just sent a recommendation to Congress on the site and we were finally looking after long years of litigation when the first trucks could literally roll. There was a plan to start putting material in the repository in 2010. It was pushed back to 2015 and now there's even speculation that it could never occur.

CURWOOD: How important is this possibly falsified data?

TURLEY: It's very important for a couple of reasons. One is, there has long been criticism of the Department of Energy that they were blindly committed to the site and that they were not seriously looking for flaws, but rather trying to present data to make their case. And, in that sense, there's been a suspicion that they've created a certain environment, a sort of corrosive environment in which these types of problems will occur.

CURWOOD: Now, the attorney general of Nevada has written to the United States Attorney General Alberto Gonzales asking that the area be secured so that no files or data could be tampered with. What is the AG of Nevada concerned about here?

TURLEY: Well, potentially when you have falsified information going to federal agencies and ultimately to Congress you have the potential for criminal charges. The question is, to what extent would that criminality or misconduct extend up the ranks in the Department of Energy.

CURWOOD: In your view, how likely do you think it is that just rogue elements in the energy department on their own, low-level folks put this together?

TURLEY: I'm very suspicious that individuals would take it upon themselves spontaneously to falsify data that's at a critical juncture. It's not that you're likely to find a smoking gun of a memo to falsify that data, but you will have a sort of World Com situation. What were the conversations with high management? What did they convey and more importantly, what did they expect from these lower-ranked individuals?

CURWOOD: What are the likely scenarios for investigating this set of allegations?

TURLEY: The most obvious branch to investigate would be the United States Congress. They, the Congress has the oversight authority and responsibility to look into these problems. The problem is that Congress is under the same control as the White House and there's not a lot of confidence that you're going to have an aggressive investigation, particularly because the heads of these committees tend to be viewed as pro-industry and pro-Yucca Mountain. The other source would be a criminal investigation. Once you start talking about indictments and grand juries, however, it changes the whole dimension of the case.

CURWOOD: In your opinion, do you think some sort of special prosecutor should be appointed in this case?

TURLEY: Well, you know, that would be ideal because the controversies involving Yucca have never diminished and it's more than just simply "not in my backyard" type of reactions by citizens. There are real questions about Yucca Mountain, they've been raised by government offices, not by citizens' groups. If you are going to use the site for such a high risk and long-term project, the first task, I think, is to assure the public that it is safe, that you haven't put a thumb on the scale. That's why, these allegations are so serious and could not come at a worse time. Just as the administration was about to make the case, particularly to the citizens of Nevada, that all was well, you find that indeed someone did put a thumb on the scale and were not too sure how that affected the evaluation of the site.

CURWOOD: Jonathan Turley is a professor at the George Washington University School of Law. Thanks for taking this time with me, today.

TURLEY: It's my pleasure.



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