Academic Environmental Studies
Environmental Studies

The Yucca Mountain Nuclear Controversy

Falsification of Quality-Assurance Data

An enterprise as politically fraught as Yucca Mountain demands rigorous science. To this end, the DOE maintained a quality-assurance (QA) program to ensure that scientists adhered to appropriate procedures. In 2005, DOE lawyers discovered that several scientists studying water infiltration had falsified QA data. The news set off a firestorm, as Nevadan politicians and citizens’ groups attacked DOE over the allegations. The politics-over-science framework outlined above provided a template for the opposition’s response. Opponents among Nevada’s political establishment used the politics-over-science argument tactically, ensuring the scandal stayed in the news with attention-grabbing speeches and demands for investigations. Activists, on the other hand, used the framework in a different way, attacking the quality of the science at Yucca directly by noting exactly how politics had inserted itself into the scientific method. Their accusations to this effect undermined DOE’s credibility, and marked the beginning of the proposed Yucca Mountain repository’s final decline and eventual termination.


Hydrological Testing A hydrological testing system at Yucca Mountain. (Source: Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management)

The falsification issue emerged from USGS water-infiltration research. The rate of water infiltration into Yucca Mountain was one of the key factors in the viability of Yucca Mountain as a repository site. A high rate of water infiltration would raise the possibility that radioactive material might be washed into nearby aquifers which supply drinking water for local residents.5 The DOE, therefore, maintained a rigorous quality-assurance (QA) program to insure that scientists doing research on water infiltration followed accurate and replicable procedures.

In 2005, DOE lawyers going over old emails between USGS scientists working on models of water infiltration discovered that several of the scientists had falsified QA data from 1998 to 2000.15 The scientists had evidently chafed under the strict record-keeping requirements of the QA program.13 The emails detailed the ways in which the researchers worked around the QA requirements: they “fixed” models after the fact to be in line with standards, made up dates, and doctored results.13 One scientist wrote, “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.”3

Politics Trumps Science Once Again

Opponents used the scandal to argue that the federal government was once again sidestepping its own safety regulations to forge ahead with Yucca Mountain for political reasons. Both Nevadan politicians and environmental organizations took advantage of the affair to press this line of attack, although they did so in slightly different ways. State officials and congressmen used their political leverage to demand investigations into the influence of politics on the scientific process and to trumpet the scandal before the media. Activists aimed more directly at the science itself, attacking the credibility of a politically tainted process, just as they had done when the chlorine-36 affair surfaced.

Jon Porter Kenny Guinn Former representative Jon Porter and former governor Kenny Guinn, two important figures in the falsification scandal. (Sources: Wikipedia, State of Nevada)

Nevadan politicians seized upon the allegations to garner publicity, demanding investigations into how politics had intruded upon science. Representative Jon Porter of Nevada, the chair of the House Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce and Agency Organization, hired a full-time investigator to look into the affair. He also convened a hearing of the subcommittee, at which he summoned a succession of Nevadans to testify about the falsified data.15 No less than the governor of Nevada, Kenny Guinn, flew out to Washington, where he testified that “the foot-dragging and game playing must stop, and a real, legitimate investigation must be initiated immediately.” “For too long in this project,” he said, “we have watched politics trump science over and over again.”11 Porter’s subcommittee also subpoenaed several of the researchers involved. He and others argued that the investigation had to uncover the extent of the falsification, because the stakes were too high at Yucca to settle for anything less than the strictest standards of scientific credibility.3 Of course, all of this activity also ensured that the scandal remained in the news for as long as possible, while undermining the federal government’s credibility in the public eye.

Environmental organizations took a different tack, attacking the science behind Yucca directly by pointing out the ways in which the DOE had applied political pressure to researchers. In a petition to Congress, 23 organizations—among them Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and Clean Water Action—wrote, “USGS scientists did not follow established procedures for verifying their work and were under tremendous pressure to get the ‘right’ results quickly.”5 They continued,

DOE is currently conducting an internal review of the ramifications of the 1998-2000 emails on its license application, but it is clear that DOE decided on its conclusions well before beginning this review. In a DOE memo faxed on March 13—before the agency even announced the falsification to the public—DOE had already decided that “the information contained in the emails does not impact the site recommendation and we do not believe that the questionable data has any meaningful effect on the results supporting the site recommendation.”5

These attacks on the science behind Yucca Mountain, while perhaps less immediately attention-grabbing than demands for an investigation, ultimately proved much more damaging. In undermining the science, activists effectively discredited the entire enterprise.

The falsification scandal had a lasting effect on Yucca Mountain. Political attacks and demands for investigation kept Yucca Mountain in the public eye, a place its backers would rather it not be. The attacks on the science behind Yucca Mountain, meanwhile, proved to be something of a tipping point for the undertaking. The following year, the DOE awarded a contract to Oak Ridge Associated Universities to conduct expert reviews of the work at Yucca Mountain, an attempt to shore up the government’s flagging credibility.1 Over the next few years, the government engaged in a number of similar moves. All of them were acts of desperation, and none worked. The project, long in decline, died less than five years after the scandal broke. The opposition, working with the politics-over-science framework, had prevailed.

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