E-Mails Reveal Fraud in Nuclear Site Study


New York Times

April 2, 2005

WASHINGTON, April 1 - Government employees studying whether Yucca Mountain in Nevada would be a suitable place to bury nuclear waste acknowledged in e-mail messages to each other that they had made up details about how they had done their research in order to appear to meet quality standards, according to some of the messages made public on Friday.

Some of the frank exchanges included instructions to erase them. The Energy Department, which is trying to open a waste repository at the mountain, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, disclosed the existence of the e-mail messages two weeks ago. On Friday, a subcommittee of the House Committee on Government Reform released dozens of pages of the messages.

One analyst wrote that a computer program had generated data he could not explain, so he withheld it from the quality assurance department, known as QA.

"Don't look at the last 4 lines. Those are a mystery," wrote the scientist, who the subcommittee said was an employee of the United States Geological Survey, a part of the Interior Department. "I've deleted the lines from the 'official' QA version of the files."

"In the end I keep track of 2 sets of files, the ones that will keep QA happy and the ones that were actually used," he wrote. The message was dated November 1999.

B. John Garrick, the chairman of the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, a group of independent experts established by Congress to monitor the Energy Department, said that it was too soon to draw conclusions but that "it is disturbing to see such loosely framed discussions between scientists."

Before releasing the messages, the subcommittee removed the names and titles of the senders and the recipients, and deleted other words that made the full context of some of the messages difficult to ascertain. But the theme was that employees were performing work they did not believe would meet standards set by the quality assurance inspectors, and were sometimes falsifying their work in ways that they believed would satisfy the inspectors.

In a message dated April 22, 1999, a scientist wrote that he did some calculations by hand and that the computer program he wrote, presumably to do those calculations, "is not in the system." He wrote that he feared he would be "taken to the cleaners" by the inspectors because his work did not refer to an established procedure laid out in a scientific notebook, and he asked if he should create such a notebook "and back-date the whole thing??"

The author of another message noted in January 2000 that he could not document the way certain work was done. "I can start making something up, but then the (deleted) projects will need to go on hold," he wrote.

In an e-mail message in March 2000, a government worker wrote that he did not know when software he had used had been installed. "So I've made up the dates and names," he wrote. "If they need more proof I will be happy to make up more stuff, as long as its not a video recording of the software being installed."

The chairman of the panel that released the messages, Representative Jon Porter, Republican of Nevada, pointed out that the Energy Department and the White House had repeatedly said that their recommendation of the Yucca Mountain site was based on "sound science."

"If the project has been based upon science, and the science is not correct, it puts the whole project in jeopardy," said Mr. Porter, a longtime opponent of Yucca Mountain plan. "I believe these e-mails show science is not driving the project; it's expedience to get the job done."

In a well-done scientific investigation, he said, the methods used to derive predictions about crucial factors like water infiltration should be transparent and reproducible.

A lawyer who represents the State of Nevada, Joseph Egan, said that after reading the messages, "you can't even say it's wrong; you have to say it's not reliable."

"You don't know how badly they've fudged this stuff," Mr. Egan said.

Some of the correspondents explicitly discuss problems and say they do not believe that they make any material difference to the ability of the mountain, a volcanic structure on the edge of the Nevada Test Site, to hold the waste for thousands of years.

But the issue of quality control is crucial to the Energy Department because to open a repository, it must win the approval of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has scuttled some projects because of quality assurance problems. In one case in the 1980's, the commission forced the owners of a nuclear reactor to abandon their project, after they had spent nearly $2 billion and when the reactor was said to be 98 percent complete, because of questions about whether some welds had been made properly and inspected adequately by qualified inspectors.

The subcommittee on the federal work force, which released the e-mail messages, plans to hold a hearing on Yucca Mountain on Tuesday. The witnesses include several prominent opponents, including Gov. Kenny Guinn of Nevada and Senator Harry Reid, also of Nevada, the Democratic leader.