WASHINGTON – E-mails by several government scientists on the Yucca Mountain (search) nuclear waste dump project suggest workers were planning to fabricate records and manipulate results to ensure outcomes that would help the project move forward.
"I don't have a clue when these programs were installed. So I've made up the dates and names," wrote a U.S. Geological Survey (search) employee in one e-mail released Friday by a congressional committee investigating suspected document falsification on the project.
"This is as good as it's going to get. If they need more proof, I will be happy to make up more stuff."
In another message the same employee wrote to a colleague: "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." QA apparently refers to "quality assurance."
The e-mails, written from 1998 to 2000, were in a batch of correspondence released in advance of next week's hearing by the House Government Reform Subcommittee on the Federal Work Force and Agency Organization, chaired by Rep. Jon Porter (search), R-Nev.
The Energy and Interior departments revealed the existence of the e-mails March 16, and inspectors general of both departments are investigating. The FBI also is conducting a probe, according to a subcommittee staffer.
Yucca Mountain, approved by Congress in 2002, is planned as the nation's underground repository for 77,000 tons of defense waste and used reactor fuel from commercial power plants. The material is supposed to be buried for at least 10,000 years beneath the Nevada desert, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
Many Nevadans and some environmentalists say the waste can never be safely stored and the plan puts local residents at risk. There also are concerns among others outside the state that hauling the waste to Nevada puts at risk those along the routes.
But the Bush administration, the energy industry and others say a central storage site is needed, and would provide better security for tens of thousands of tons of commercial and defense waste now housed at sites in 39 states.
The e-mails, dating from the Clinton administration, were circulated among a team of USGS scientists studying how water moves through the planned dump site, a key issue in determining whether and how much radiation could escape.
Scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey validated Energy Department conclusions that water seepage was relatively slow, so radiation would be less likely to escape.
Many of the dozens of pages of e-mails released appear to involve not initial scientific experiments, but rather attempts to provide documentation of work done in the past. Several include admonitions from the writers to "delete this memo after you've read it" or "please destroy this memo."
The Energy Department is working to submit an application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license to run the dump, and must turn over extensive documentation.
The e-mails, most of them from geological survey field workers in Las Vegas, provide a window into the environment surrounding the project, first considered over 20 years ago. Names and some proper nouns were blacked out by congressional staffers before they were released.
"Science by peer pressure is dangerous but sometime (sic) it is necessary," says one message, by a second scientist at the geological survey.
The emergence of the e-mails was the latest setback for Yucca Mountain, which has also suffered money shortfalls and an appeals court decision last summer that is forcing a rewrite of radiation exposure limits for the site. The Energy Department recently abandoned a planned 2010 completion date, and department officials have not given a new date.
The department's concern about the e-mails is evident in a portion of an internal memo, apparently written around the time they were discovered, that was also released Friday: "These e-mails may create a substantial vulnerability for the program."
An Energy Department spokeswoman declined comment on the memo or the contents of the e-mails because of the continuing investigations.