Wednesday, December 20, 2000

YUCCA MOUNTAIN: Site at heart of nomination opposition, controversial memo

Colin Sullivan, Greenwire staff writer

Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday he will use all his power to block the nomination of former Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) as secretary of Energy should President-elect Bush decide to tap the former Senate Energy Committee chairman for the job. Reid's opposition has everything to do with Johnston's pro-nuclear power stance and, more specifically, the likelihood the former senator would support locating a federal nuclear dump at Yucca Mountain, Nev.

At a press conference Tuesday in Washington, D.C., Reid and several environmental groups declared a Johnston nomination tantamount to war on the environment and environmentalists. Though he considers Johnston a personal friend, Reid said he called the former senator Tuesday morning to let him know how passionately he plans to oppose his potential nomination.

"If Bush is appointing Johnston, we should be very afraid," Reid said. "I called [Johnston] personally to say this: I'm going to do everything I can to keep you from getting this job."

Though he could not be reached for comment Tuesday, Johnston has expressed interest in the position and is reportedly mulling it over. After meeting with Bush last week, Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) apparently turned down the job offer but then recommended Johnston.

Reid and the Nevada congressional delegation, meantime, are facing the likelihood of another pitched battle next year over Yucca Mountain nuclear storage. Their ace-in-the-hole in similar congressional battles over the last eight years, Reid admits, has been the Clinton administration's firm opposition to transporting nuclear waste to the federal site in Nevada, at least until the site is proven safe; President Clinton vetoed several bills meant to expedite use of the storage site.

But now Nevadans will have to contend with the Bush administration, which could have Yucca ready and operational as soon as six to eight months after Inauguration Day, according to Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.). Bush has said he will support moving nuclear waste to the DOE site if the plan is based on sound science.

Though it is unclear whether another Yucca bill will come up in Congress this year pending DOE's final licensing assessment of the site, it does seem likely to surface again if the department further delays final licensing or if the Environmental Protection Agency manages to block final licensing through implementation of strict groundwater radiation standards. Both issues are still up in the air, not to mention a possible $80-billion lawsuit against the federal government by nuclear utilities if licensing of the site is further delayed.

Further complicating the matter will be the new 50-50 split in the Senate. Though an aide to Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) said it is too soon to say how that split will affect the issue, one Hill source indicated Reid will again be the key obstruction, especially if he manages to convince new Senate Democrats to back his opposition to the Yucca site.

With that pending conflict as backdrop, a separate matter related to Yucca surfaced Tuesday as the Nevada delegation called for a federal investigation into an alleged bias within DOE that favors the nuclear industry.

The delegation and a number of green groups, including Public Citizen and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, claim a recently leaked memorandum from DOE's Yucca Mountain contractor, the TRW company, proves the department is biased in favor of the proposed waste repository. DOE is supposed to be conducting an objective scientific analysis to assess whether the site is safe, meaning any predisposition toward approving the site means the department is biased and unfair, the groups claim.

The undated TRW memo, which was released to the media, outlines information the director of the contracting project might use to influence the DOE secretary to recommend the site. That contractor was paid "hundreds of millions of dollars" to complete an objective report that looks at what is good and bad about Yucca Mountain, Reid said. But instead of honoring that ethical commitment, he continued, the contractor turned around and conducted an unscientific analysis meant to produce a desired result: a recommendation that the program move forward.

"An honest scientific review of Yucca Mountain has not happened," Reid said.

Largely because of the memo, which was leaked by an anonymous source within either DOE or TRW, the DOE inspector general (IG) has already agreed to conduct an investigation. Reid has also requested a formal inquiry by the General Accounting Office.

On Dec. 8, with the support of Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, Reid requested the IG investigation. That inquiry has since been approved and officially started Tuesday.

TRW denies any impropriety and says all scientific evaluations have been conducted in "an open and objective fashion."

"Our team stands behind its work and is confident that, in the end, the IG will find no bias on the part of DOE or the contractor team," said Marynoele Benson, a TRW spokesperson.