Reid, Ensign use Vegas hearing to air nuclear dump complaints

LAS VEGAS (AP) -- Nevada's U.S. senators vowed Wednesday to keep investigating allegations of quality control problems and whistleblower intimidation at the desert site picked to bury the nation's nuclear waste.

"There'll be other proceedings, that's for sure," Democratic Sen. Harry Reid said after 90 minutes of testimony from three of five witnesses he and Republican Sen. John Ensign invited to speak at a Senate energy and water subcommittee hearing in Las Vegas.

Ensign said the absence of two witnesses -- former Yucca Mountain quality assurance auditor Donald Harris and project contractor Robert Clark -- showed an Energy Department "culture of retaliation" against whistleblowers.

"These people wanted to come and testify," Reid said as local access cable television cameras focused on two empty seats reserved for Harris and Clark in the Clark County Commission chambers. "They were afraid they would lose their jobs."

Energy Department spokesman Joe Davis in Washington, D.C., denied Yucca Mountain whistleblowers have been intimidated, and declared the quality assurance program sound.

He noted that Energy Department officials were not asked to testify to defend the program, and pointed to a May 20 letter to Reid from Kristi Hodges, a quality assurance auditor at Yucca Mountain.

"She found no technical smoking guns in the Yucca Mountain program," Davis said.

William Belke, a retired Nuclear Regulatory Commission oversight officer at Yucca Mountain, told Reid and Ensign he believes in nuclear power.

However, he submitted a list of shortcomings he said he witnessed in his 15 years with the project.

He cited software, computer and modeling program errors; improperly qualified technicians; and pressure to meet schedules so administrators could collect performance bonuses.

"The same problems occur again and again and again," Belke said.

Davis denied data was lost due to computer problems, and said more than 250 credentialed experts had been studying Yucca Mountain for more than two decades.

"The bottom line is, the science is sound and it proved Yucca Mountain is suitable for storing nuclear waste," Davis said. The Energy Department plans by the end of 2004 to submit to the NRC an application to operate the nuclear repository, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Robin Nazzaro, director of an ongoing congressional General Accounting Office study of the Yucca Mountain project, said she doubted the Energy Department could meet the 2004 date. She called the Energy Department's quality assurance program "less than favorable."

"We're not saying that Yucca Mountain is a bad idea," she said. "We're not saying the science is bad. We're saying they're not able to prove it."

Allison Macfarlane, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher, submitted an 11-page statement focusing on technical elements, such as the rate of water seepage into containment chambers drilled 1,000 feet below Yucca Mountain.

"Water is the enemy of the (radioactive waste) containment canisters," she said.

Reid and Ensign said radioactive waste should remain stored at nuclear power plants around the nation until the safety of transporting and storing it in a single site is proved.

The Energy Department plans to entomb 77,000 tons of commercial, industrial and military waste at the site at the western edge of the Nevada Test Site. Project planners say it will remain radioactive for 10,000 years.

Since Congress and President Bush picked Yucca Mountain last year, Nevada has filed a series of federal lawsuits against the plan.


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