Nuclear Waste Nominee Raises More Conflict of Interest Issues for Troubled Yucca Mountain Project

Dec. 5, 2001

Nuclear Waste Nominee Raises More Conflict of Interest Issues for Troubled Yucca Mountain Project

WASHINGTON, D.C. ? President Bush?s nomination of Margaret Chu to the office responsible for the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository raises conflict of interest concerns because of her previous work at Sandia National Laboratories, a key participant in the project, Public Citizen said today. Chu has been nominated as director of the Department of Energy?s (DOE) Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM). The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the confirmation today.

“Such blatant organizational conflict of interest makes this nomination unacceptable,” said Lisa Gue, policy analyst with Public Citizen?s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. “As director of OCRWM, Chu would be in a position to review the work of a program she formerly directed.”

For more than two decades, Chu was employed by Sandia National Labs, most recently as director of the Nuclear Waste Management Program. Sandia is a DOE nuclear weapons and research facility operated by Lockheed Martin Corp. The facility has conducted several studies related to the Yucca Mountain repository proposal, including a series of “Total System Performance Assessments” (TSPAs) that aim to predict the ability of the DOE?s repository designs to contain nuclear waste far into the future. As stated on Sandia?s Web site, “Any decision on whether to build and operate a repository at the [Yucca Mountain] site will be strongly influenced by past and future TSPA analyses.”

Yucca Mountain, located northwest of Las Vegas in Nevada, is the only site under consideration for a proposed high-level nuclear waste repository. OCRWM is responsible for evaluating the suitability of the site, which may lead to a recommendation by the energy secretary early next year. Numerous technical, environmental and policy issues remain unresolved, but the pro-nuclear Bush administration appears committed to pursuing the project.

“Sandia?s Yucca Mountain studies have tended to favor the repository proposal,” said Gue, noting that the presidentially appointed Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board has frequently been critical of the high level of uncertainty involved in the TSPA analyses. “If the DOE decides not to recommend the site, Sandia?s reputation would certainly be hurt.”

“Because of her long association with Sandia?s Nuclear Waste Management Program, Margaret Chu will be under immense pressure to support a favorable evaluation of the Yucca Mountain repository proposal regardless of evidence that should disqualify the site,” Gue said.

Recent events have brought to light other instances of conflict of interest within the Yucca Mountain Project, seriously damaging its credibility. The law firm Winston & Strawn resigned last week after the DOE?s inspector general reported that lawyers serving as counsel to the Yucca Mountain Project were simultaneously registered as members and lobbyists for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry?s pro-repository lobbying group. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission?s inspector general also is investigating an alleged leak of unpublished NRC documents to Winston & Strawn lawyers. Additionally, a draft Government Accounting Office document, reported on last week in the Washington Post and elsewhere, appears to indicate that DOE?s current site recommendation activities are premature because many studies are incomplete.

“The repository proposal should be shelved pending a thorough and independent review of the causes and consequences of contractor conflict of interest and pro-industry bias within the Yucca Mountain Project,” said Gue. “The integrity of the program has been seriously undermined, and by nominating Margaret Chu the administration shows no interest in improving this dismal track record.”