Criticism of the Energy Department's plan for a nuclear waste repository is building by the day. Recent revelations about falsified scientific reports on Yucca Mountain are being investigated by Congress and federal agencies. Nevada's Senate delegation wants DOE to halt work on the project. Rep. Jon Porter, chairman of the Federal Workforce and Agency Organization Subcommittee, joins OnPoint to discuss his panel's hearing into the falsification of documents and other questions surrounding the trouble-plagued Yucca Mountain project.
Mary O'Driscoll: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Mary O'Driscoll. Today we're discussing allegations of fraud regarding the scientific work at the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada. Our guest is Congressman Jon Porter, Republican of Nevada and chairman of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce. Congressman, thank you so much for joining us today.
Rep. Jon Porter: Thank you Mary, happy to be here.
Mary O'Driscoll: You're having a hearing today on this issue and you've been conducting an investigation stemming from the announcement by DOE and the U.S. Geological Survey regarding the falsification of data. This set off a real political firestorm that seems to have set the project back on its heels somewhat. Can you explain to our audience just what happened and why this is important?
Rep. Jon Porter: Well, it's major because of the falsified documents had to do with the number one issue of science at the Yucca Mountain project. As a, of course, a resident of Nevada, it's very near and dear to me, the project, and I have been watching, monitoring and absolutely opposed to the project for over 20 years. But as chairman of the committee my responsibility is not only what's best for Nevada, what's best for the country. But what we have is documents that have e-mails between employees that talk about how they falsified information. I brought along some for you to look at later if you would like, but they talk about changing dates, changing data, fudging on records. In one case, they even commented on how people are going to finally find out the truth about Yucca Mountain. So from a chairman's perspective there's multiple things happening. One, anytime a federal employee is engaged in fraudulent activity, it's my role as chairman, our jurisdiction, to get to the bottom of it as quickly as possible. Also there's the question of the safety for millions of people across the country regarding the project itself. So we are having a hearing today. We're going to hear from Nevada elected officials. We're going hear from DOE, DOI and a number of officials today to get the bottom of it, but it's appalling to me that federal government would allow this to continue. Actually it happened between 1998 and the year 2000. So it really begs the question of what else is there? There is some internal memos from the Department of Energy, that also say that, it acknowledges that there's deliberate falsified documents, deliberate acts. They comment that they're having trouble even matching some of the science that was done fraudulently. It also questions, from these internal memos, a way the project can continue as it is. So it is serious, serious allegations.
Mary O'Driscoll: Well, that was going to be my next question. Do you think this is fatal to the Yucca Mountain project? You've been fighting this for more than 20 years.
Rep. Jon Porter: Well, you know, the science, the issue of science has been on the minds of everyone in Congress. In fairness to my colleagues, they made decisions supporting Yucca Mountain based upon sound science. The White House made decisions based upon sound science. The federal court, and we've won some cases in federal court, has made decisions based on sound science. The problem is this is science fiction. This is not science and I believe that reasonable people will look at this data and realize that it is fraudulent. We have the documents saying it's fraudulent, and I think it could be a nail in the coffin, but I've heard excuses for years so I'm anxious to hear the testimony.
Mary O'Driscoll: Yeah. OK, I was going to say that there have been several nails in the coffin, but it just depends on what the last one is going to be. I mean there's been the funding problem. There has been the regulatory problems they've had, some of the legal questions surrounding it and so this just seems to be, is this another one or is this the one that's finally going to do it?
Rep. Jon Porter: Well you know Mary, when they started this, when Congress started this 20 some years ago I was a much younger man. Twenty years ago Las Vegas was a small little community in the middle of the desert and they found this mountain out in the middle of nowhere and decided that they would narrow it to the Yucca Mountain project. Well now, we have 2, almost 1.8 people somewhere within 50 to 70 miles, so there are things that have changed. More importantly the state has, putting on my state member of the Nevada Senate and a local government official and my congressional hat, the state has been a formidable foe for multiple reasons. One, the science hasn't been proven, but also I met with Senator Reid, you know Senator Ensign and many members of Congress have been successful for years. We're now seeing deadline changes. We're seeing even changes in leadership in the department. We're seeing a lot of changes, and I think that we've won many battles, but the war continues from a Nevada perspective.
Mary O'Driscoll: Well, from an outsider's perspective, as someone watching this whole debate going on and saying, well, Nevada seems to be the most likely spot. Nobody lives out there. It's out in the middle of desert. What are you going to harm, a few scorpions or snakes or something like that? What is your response to that? I mean, you know people would say, well, who cares? Plus, you know your district is in southern Nevada. It's not even in your district, in your congressional district and it's, I don't think any of the roads that lead there or the train routes that lead there are going to go through your district. So how do you respond to that?
Rep. Jon Porter: I think that's sort of an interesting question. One, you know Nevada's a small state so I represent the whole state as a member of Congress. There are many unanswered questions. I think that common sense tells us that this has never been done before, ever, in the history of the world. It's a project that needs quality assurance. It needs to make sure that all the ends are met. This information that has come forward, these documents, shows that there's a rush to judgment, that from the comments from the employees that they were feeling pressure that they had to get the job done at any cost. Now there are multiple questions from the storage itself, water leakage, and by the way, that's what this had to do with, was the leaking of water, or seepage into the burial which would then go into the groundwater.
Mary O'Driscoll: And that's been central to Nevada's case against the repository, hasn't it?
Rep. Jon Porter: Absolutely and it's central to their case that it's safe.
Mary O'Driscoll: Right.
Rep. Jon Porter: They picked a place that's supposed to be dry and there's not going to be seepage, but the seepage test is where there's been falsification of documents. But why would the rest of the country care? Well, there's going to be 70-some thousand tons of nuclear waste hauled across the country. So not only is it a concern for southern Nevada and the state of Nevada, but for our cities across the country that are going to be looking at the transportation challenges, although that's for another time where I can talk to you about that for some time. But my charge as chairman is just to make sure that it's an open public process so the community can see exactly what happening. And as chairman of the Federal Workforce Committee, with jurisdiction over federal employees, we have to make sure that this stops and make sure that they're held accountable for any abuse of their authority. As a resident of this wonderful country, we trust, and we have many times blind trust, in the federal agencies that are overseeing our public health and safety. This cuts to the core when you have the very folks that are supposed to be providing the documents to provide for the safety are falsifying the documents, what we have is the fox guarding the hen house. It's a serious, serious problem for the country.
Mary O'Driscoll: OK, well I wanted to go over, I have a couple of excerpts from the e-mails which are very interesting. One talks about, for instance, software programs, where one of the employees said, "I don't have a clue when these programs were installed, so I've made up the dates and names. This is as good as it's going to get, if they need more proof I will be happy to make up more stuff as long as it is not a video recording of the software being installed." Others talked about working to "fudge" documentation and another one said, "In the end, I keep track of two sets of files, the ones that will keep the quality assurance people happy and the ones that were actually used." It seems to me, that going through these, that a charitable reading of these e-mails would suggest maybe these are discontented employees who are frustrated with the direction that they're going in. Of course, you know, fudging documentation and that kind of thing is also very serious, but what about, I mean the work atmosphere there? It doesn't sound like it's exactly a good work atmosphere.
Rep. Jon Porter: It's really not. Senator Reid and Senator Ensign asked the GAO to do a study just last year and they reported, in their study, that they had numerous complaints, management problems, disruption of the job because of poor management. When you get into disgruntled employees, of course, you have to discount some of the fact that people have a tendency to complain whatever they do, but when they start talking about changing dates, changing documents, our question is were they told to do that to hurry the project along? As you mentioned, looking at the software, the GAO report is very specific. It covers all these issues that we're talking about today as far as poor management, but it also says the DOE has not been successful in meeting some of its changes that was required of them in the early part of the century. So there's multiple problems, there's management problems, there's health and safety questions and we're going to get to the bottom of it.
Mary O'Driscoll: OK. Now are you also looking into the e-mails that Joe Egan, who works with the Nevada Attorney General's Office out here in Washington and he was able to, I guess they did a word search on the Licensing Support Network and they did "falsification documents" and came up with thousands of e-mails. Are you looking into those e-mails as well that they were able to come up with?
Rep. Jon Porter: We will and have been looking at multiple e-mails. We also realize that all the documents have not been delivered to us yet --
Mary O'Driscoll: OK.
Rep. Jon Porter: From the Department of Energy and Department of Interior. We are looking at internal memos right now. One of the challenges that we've had, Mary, is that we asked for the documents and we received part of them. We also asked for redacted documents because, as a committee, we don't want to hinder a criminal investigation because there is criminal investigation happening. The FBI is involved, from what I understand.
Mary O'Driscoll: Right.
Rep. Jon Porter: We wanted to make sure that these documents would not hinder the criminal investigation. To this moment, we have not received our request on the redacted versions so we are going to continue our research and investigation. This is really, the meeting today, is really our first meeting. This is just the beginning and it truly is the tip of the iceberg. Whether you know anything about Yucca Mountain or not, when you hear about falsification, acknowledging documents in a federal agency, it's criminal and we're going to get to the bottom of it.
Mary O'Driscoll: Yeah, well, I'm wondering, have you talked with any Yucca Mountain workers? Do you think there'll be some whistleblowers coming out now that you've seen some of, that you're accumulating evidence of some fraud here?
Rep. Jon Porter: Yeah, we have just received the documents late last week so we spent the majority of our time, since the departments refused to follow our request for the redacted version, but we will be talking to the employees and that's why we have just begun and we'll be talking to the contractors. There's a question even with Bechtel and the knowledge that they had as the major contractor. Some of the documents state that they were made aware of this in '04. So there is a lot of tentacles to this and again, it's about what's best for the country. And I certainly have my perspective as a Nevadan, but what's important is not only Nevada, but it's the whole country and it's safety and our process of doing business as a federal government.
Mary O'Driscoll: OK. Well I wanted ask you, that your subcommittee's having this hearing, not to demean your committee, but, because it serves an important oversight function for the federal employees, but shouldn't the energy oversight committees on Capitol Hill be doing something on this? I mean doesn't it get into, are there policy implications here, not just federal employees, but some basic policy implications that maybe some other committees should start looking into?
Rep. Jon Porter: Right. I would agree. There was a hearing scheduled in the Senate for this week, that has since been canceled or postponed, I'm not sure of the proper term, but I have no doubt that the Commerce Committee will be looking at this closely. As soon as I became aware of the falsified documents, as chairman of oversight over the federal employees, I immediately scheduled the hearing. But I've no doubt there will be numerous hearings on this subject.
Mary O'Driscoll: So we have not heard the last of this?
Rep. Jon Porter: Well, I know you haven't from my committee.
Mary O'Driscoll: Well, what does this tell you about these types of projects where you want, you know this is the first time that they've attempted to have deep geologic burial of wastes in someplace that they thought was relatively safe, a dry, arid region of the country? What does this tell you about this, especially in light of, I mean, the Skull Valley Tribe in Utah is trying to get an above-ground storage facility that would be a temporary facility nonetheless. But what does this tell you about these kinds of projects? I mean are they, is it just scientifically impossible to do this?
Rep. Jon Porter: I support nuclear energy. I think it's a resource that must continue in the U.S., but we also must find a location for the waste. But what it tells me is that politics has been driving this project. The science has changed so much in the last 20 years. When they determined that Yucca Mountain should be the site after looking at New Mexico and numerous other places, there's so many better ways to do it today than in burying. In Europe they're using transmutation and different ways of taking care of hazardous material. But this tells me that they used politics not sound science, that they've spent $8 or $9 billion, depending on who you speak to about the project. I sense from the documents that there was a rush to find an answer and if they couldn't find the right answer they would change the data to get the right answer to build the project. So what it tells me is that this is about politics and not about what's best for the country.
Mary O'Driscoll: I've been watching this, as a reporter, on and off for the past 20 some odd years and people were saying that for a long time, that they would be changing the science to adapt to the politics and it actually looks like it's happened now.
Rep. Jon Porter: You know, we have found, I'll put on my Nevada-member-of-Congress hat, we have found in our battles through years that the bar keeps changing. You know the state will do a pretty good job, as a small delegation, a small state, we've done a good job of battling this project. One, the state doesn't want it and we of course believe in state's rights and we should be a part of the decisionmaking process. But we have had a strong delegation, as I mentioned, Senator Reid, Senator Ensign, Shelley Berkley and Jim Gibbons and even my predecessors, but this project, as we see it today in these documents, this is what we have been telling people for years. It's politics.
Mary O'Driscoll: Well, what's the solution? You don't want the Yucca Mountain repository. On-site storage poses a lot of safety problems and a lot of problems for people who think, well, isn't it safer thousands of miles away from me rather than just at the local nuclear reactor site? You can't do reprocessing because of proliferation concerns and in fact, I believe it's illegal. So what's the solution?
Rep. Jon Porter: Well, I think you said it well. Thousands, if not millions, of people don't want the waste in their backyard, so it's been easy to say, well, let's pick Nevada. In fairness to my colleagues on the Hill, most don't really think about it like we do in Nevada. It's a day-to-day battle for us, but there are options. They have casks now that they're going to use to haul it between the nuclear sites and Yucca Mountain. We could store it in those casks on-site, as they have been. They can keep it as they have. There are those that will argue well it's safer to put it all one place. Well we have terrorist situations that we've never had before in the history of Yucca Mountain, the fact with 9/11 and what a target, whether it be the transportation of the waste or whether it be Yucca Mountain. There are those that will argue, well, it's safer at Yucca Mountain, but that still isn't going to change the nuclear site's going to remain. So to answer your question, I am not a scientist, but I believe in common sense. We have a project right now that's in question because of falsified documents. Those documents cut to the core of their argument as to why it's safe. There are the ways to take care of the waste. The problem is they've been throwing money in the hole for all these years and I think they feel they have to continue, but again, there is documentation to say, even the agencies have said that there's deliberate activity to falsify. They've also questioned reliability of the project based upon these documents.
Mary O'Driscoll: OK. Well I want to change gears just a little bit to another issue that's been prominent in Nevada. It's the land-use issue. The Bush administration has proposed to redirect hundreds of millions of dollars from federal land sales near Las Vegas. Do you support discussions going on in the Resources Committee right now to try to find some sort of a compromise on that? I mean, the administration wanted to take 70 percent of the money, but I guess the money had gone to schools and to the water district and for programs out there, for land-use programs out there. Is there a compromise? Do you support what's going on?
Rep. Jon Porter: Mary, I applaud you as your depth of knowledge of Nevada issues and I appreciate, the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act, which was authored by Senator Ensign and Senator Bryan at the time, in, I believe, it was '97 or '98, did something unique. It provided that when public lands were auctioned or sold, depending on where in the process, a good share of those dollars could stay in Nevada. We have increased the value of the property because our development and today there could be well over a billion dollars possibly there and in the future maybe more because of our land sales. I do not support the president on this issue or Yucca Mountain, by the way, and I know that prior administrations, even the Clinton administration initially, tried to stop it, but the attempt is to balance a budget. I understand that we have deficits, but what's happening as politicians we're kind of like bears looking for the pot of honey and that pot of honey is money and my colleagues see a pot of dollars sitting there and they want to use it to help with the deficit. We, through Chairman Pombo and the Resources Committee and Senator Gibbons who serves on that committee, we have been working hard to make sure that that doesn't happen. It was not in the budget report in the resolution and I know that, again, Senator Ensign, Senator Reid are fighting it in the Senate, but I have no doubt as the bears seek the pot of honey that every time we do a budget they're going to look at these funds. Well, the value is there because of what we created in Nevada and instead of us coming to D.C. to get funds for our projects, whether it be the tortoise project, which I know you're aware of in Nevada, Endangered Species Act, air and water quality, we're using these funds to take care of projects in Nevada to save sensitive lands like Tahoe and other parts of the state. We believe the argument is sound that those monies should stay there and it'll save in the long run because we won't have to come to the federal government for additional monies.
Mary O'Driscoll: OK. Well, that's all we have time for today. I'd like to thank Congressman Jon Porter, Republican of Nevada, as our guest. I'm Mary O'Driscoll. We'll see you next time on another edition of OnPoint.
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