A former senior government inspector at Yucca Mountain said the project was riddled with potential problems and will have a hard time getting a federal license to store nuclear waste if crucial safety data cannot be documented.
Bill Belke, who lives in Las Vegas, said he was the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's senior on-site representative at the project for seven years.
During that time, Belke said, he watched over the shoulders of Department of Energy and contract workers as they tried to troubleshoot problems involving two decades of data that scientists gathered.
Belke said some of the information involved earthquake hazards, volcanic activity and groundwater paths that government scientists plugged into models and designs to figure out if the planned nuclear waste dump could stand the test of time.
"I know with the problems I've seen, there's been a lot of problems with data,'' Belke told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in a copyrighted story published Thursday.
"And the data, if it's going into a license, has got to be of a high pedigree quality to support their licensing activities. They've got to make a case that this data is accurate and qualified.''
Belke's comments follow reports that two men who worked at the project as quality assurance specialists were fired or transferred after voicing concerns about the site.
Nevada's U.S. senators want a congressional investigation of management at Yucca Mountain. Democrat Harry Reid and Republican John Ensign have alleged "fraud and abuse'' in the firing of the two workers.
DOE officials said they have confidence in the site studies, and any problems at the project will be dealt with appropriately before a license application is submitted to the NRC in late 2004 or early 2005.
Reid was also sent an anonymous letter earlier this week claiming that critical documents involving site studies at Yucca were lost.
The letter stated: "Currently as much as 50 percent of the data used to support the site recommendation of the Yucca Mountain Project is lost — NRC is aware of this.''
Reid wants the allegation probed.
Belke isn't surprised by the letter. He said that in the last years of the Yucca Mountain studies, quality assurance problems noted by project officials were frequent.
"They would try to defend them as opposed to fixing them,'' Belke said. "What I've seen with the program, it's like the old dam story, you fix the leak, then you have another one and another one.''
So far, scientists have found nothing at the site, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, that would preclude building a maze of tunnels to hold 77,000 tons of spent fuel and highly radioactive waste.
But Belke said that the DOE faces "quite a challenge'' in convincing NRC license reviewers that the paper trail is accurate and gap-proof. He said core samples about the mountain's geology and volcanic activity must be documented.
The DOE must show that the people who collected and analyzed the data were qualified and the equipment they used was calibrated to national standards, Belke said.
Some data about the site collected during the 1980s is probably not adequate to meet current quality assurance standards, and to back it with a paper-trail of evidence, will be very costly, he said.
"You add all these up, what confidence does this give you that it's going to be done in an acceptable manner?'' Belke asked. "DOE has a very difficult task to make their case.''
Until he retired in January, Belke said he fielded at least 25 concerns from project employees, mostly dealing with data collection and software complications. In reports he filed with the NRC as recently as two years ago, he recalled "there were significant problems.''
Quality assurance workers, he said, "had to fight to get those things written up and once they finally got written up they had to have a big corrective action program to fix them.''