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Leaked Memo Reveals DOE’ s Bias for Establishing a Radioactive Waste Dump; Congressional Investigation Demanded

Dec.19, 2000

Leaked Memo Reveals DOE’ s Bias for Establishing a Radioactive Waste Dump; Congressional Investigation Demanded

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Public Citizen, the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) and members of Nevada s congressional delegation called Tuesday for a federal investigation into the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’ s) attempt to help the nuclear industry win approval for a nuclear waste dump in Nevada. The group also requested Energy Secretary Bill Richardson to immediately disqualify the site from consideration.

The call for intervention by the U.S. General Accounting Office and Richardson — and a renewed call for a DOE Inspector General investigation — came at a press conference held Tuesday. It was triggered by a recent DOE memo attached to an overview of the DOE’s Site Recommendation Considerations Report, which is to be released later this month. The memo — a note to reviewers that has been removed from subsequent versions of the overview — states that the document “provides information that potential supporters can use in expressing support for a site recommendation.” Such pro-industry bias is highly improper for an agency charged with making energy policies in the public s best interests.

The DOE is studying Yucca Mountain to determine if it is suitable to be a permanent repository for 70,000 metric tons of high-level radioactive waste from commercial reactors and weapons facilities across the country. Congress is under intense pressure from the nuclear industry to approve the site. Currently, nuclear utilities are responsible for on-site storage of the radioactive waste generated by their reactors. But if the Yucca Mountain proposal is approved, DOE would assume responsibility — and thus liability — for the waste after it leaves the reactor sites.

“This outrageous memo demonstrates that the DOE’s ‘impartiality’ in assessing Yucca Mountain s suitability for a high-level radioactive waste dump is a joke,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. “Congress should investigate how DOE and its contractors are secretly colluding to lobby for the nuclear industry.”

The GAO investigation will be requested this week by Rep. James Gibbons (R-Nev.).

“It is time that the public knows exactly what is going on at the Department of Energy,” Gibbons said in a prepared statement. “The apparent bias on behalf of the DOE and its contractors with regard to approving Yucca Mountain as a high-level nuclear waste storage site, before a suitability study is completed, shows gross negligence and cannot be tolerated.”

The letter to Secretary Richardson, sent Tuesday, was endorsed by over 160 organizations. It urged Richardson to “exercise [his] clear authority under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to disqualify the Yucca Mountain site based on its unsuitability.”

Speakers at today’s press conference also called upon President-elect Bush to give serious attention to the issue of DOE’s questionable conduct. The new administration is likely to make critical decisions about proposal for a high-level waste repository. While campaigning in Nevada in September, Bush vowed to base any decision on sound science.

Sen. Richard Bryan (D-Nev.) said he was “not very surprised” by the latest revelations of DOE bias.

“Clearly, the relationship between the DOE and the nuclear power industry represents an unholy alliance that only continues to threaten the health and safety of hundreds of thousands of Nevadans,” Bryan said. “In the end, we need greater accountability not only from the DOE but its contractors as well.”

The Yucca Mountain proposal represents an enormous subsidy for the nuclear industry at the expense of public safety, Public Citizen and NIRS said. Approval of the proposal would launch an unprecedented nuclear transportation scheme, with radioactive waste shipments passing through 43 states to get to Nevada. The waste will remain dangerously radioactive for 240,000 years. Not only does the plan pose dangers to those along the transportation route, but many are concerned that the waste will contaminate the groundwater at Yucca Mountain or be released during an earthquake. Nevada ranks third in the nation for current seismic activity.

“The latest evidence of industry bias within the DOE is extremely discouraging to members of the public who have conscientiously participated in the various hearings and comment periods to raise legitimate concerns about the repository proposal,” said Michael Mariotte, executive director of NIRS. “It now appears that public participation has been solicited merely to lend legitimacy to a process in which the selection of Yucca Mountain is a foregone conclusion.”

One Nevada senator has already requested action. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Dec. 8 asked the DOE s Inspector General to investigate the DOE’s apparent bias. The IG informed Reid late Monday that it would launch an investigation.

“It is imperative that science precedes politics and that the Department of Energy maintains the highest degree of integrity while conducting its evaluation process,” Reid said. “The Inspector General s investigation will focus on whether the DOE has already acted inappropriately, and I will continue watching every single step of the way to make sure there is ample time to guarantee an independent, objective assessment of the site.”

Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) has circulated a “Dear Colleagues” letter to other House members calling attention to the issue.

“I am disturbed by the memo that was recently brought to light, which clearly states DOE’s intention to approve the Yucca Mountain Project before all scientific research has been completed,” Berkley said. “It is absolutely essential to the future health and safety of Nevadans that the DOE’s research is based on sound science rather than biased political ambition.”

Equally concerned are several Nevada citizens groups, which held a parallel press conference on Tuesday morning in Las Vegas, Nev.

“The recently leaked memo only confirms what we have always known: that the DOE and the nuclear industry have stacked the deck to ensure Yucca Mountain becomes the world’s first high-level nuclear waste dump experiment,” said Kalynda Tilges, nuclear issues coordinator for Citizen Alert.

In Washington, D.C., Hauter added, “Pro-industry bias within the DOE seriously undermines the integrity of the Yucca Mountain site characterization process. The public cannot be expected to have confidence in a process conducted by an agency that so obviously fails to maintain impartiality.”