How about a whole mountain of phony data?

Bush's Interior Department reportedly cooked the books on whether nuclear waste can be stored safely at Nevada's Yucca Mountain site.

By Page Rockwell
March 19, 2005 5:31AM (UTC)
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Environmentalists have been focused all week on new developments in Congress toward opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, but there's another old energy issue bubbling up again: where to put waste from the nation's nuclear power plants. It's a question to which the Bush administration doesn't seem to have a good answer -- but, as with the mercury pollution issue, they do seem to have a good bit of tainted data.

The Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday that the Department of Energy and the Department of the Interior have launched investigations into allegations that government scientists submitted phony data to demonstrate that a proposed nuclear waste dump in Nevada's Yucca Mountain would be safe.

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Evidence of the Interior Department's manipulating information to facilitate government deals has been raising the hackles of environmental and government accountability groups a lot lately. But the news from Yucca Mountain seems extreme even for a department known for putting its own spin on the facts: The Interior Department didn't like the results of a study from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which concluded that rainwater moved through fissures in the mountain quickly enough for radioactive isotopes to penetrate the ground in a few decades. (It wasn't imaginary nuclear waste the Los Alamos study was dealing with, either -- the study found that leftovers from World War Two-era nuclear testing have already penetrated Yucca Mountain's rock.)

Undeterred, the Interior Department started its own study, and apparently was determined that this one would yield the results it wanted. Energy Department lawyers, reviewing emails as part of a routine confidentiality assessment, uncovered an exchange between Interior Department scientists that suggested they'd invented data to prove that the 70,000 metric tons of waste would be safely contained in the mountain for the next 10,000 years.

Nevadans, who always seem to suffer the fallout of America's nuke fever, have been opposing the dump since it was first proposed in 1978. And the Los Alamos results seem to substantiate their concern: Nuclear waste in the groundwater is the kind of disaster any state would fight tooth and nail to avoid. Problem is, even if the waste doesn't get stored in Yucca Mountain, it has to go somewhere, and currently, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, it's scattered across approximately 130 sites nationwide, many of which are dangerously close to population centers and vulnerable bodies of water.

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Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., advocates leaving the nuclear waste where it is, though his alternative proposal appears to be about more than simply keeping nuclear waste out of his constituents' backyards. Transporting tons of nuclear waste could be risky, and even if the waste is consolidated at Yucca, the 130-plus power plants will still be nuclear waste sites. Reid wants to funnel the Yucca Mountain money into containing the waste at their sites of origin, and work to invent ways to neutralize the waste on-site.

Sen. Reid expressed outrage over the Interior Department's fake data, saying: "We aren't just talking about false documentation on paper -- this is about the health and safety of Nevadans and the American people." But the Bush administration wants to dump in Yucca mountain, and, according to the L.A. Times, the Energy Department has left that door open, saying that just because the Interior Department's data may have been falsified, that "would not necessarily discredit all of the research."

Surely that sounds like a good bet to Nevadans.


Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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