A Misuse of Science?

March 31st, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

GovExec.com reported yesterday that “A House Government Reform subcommittee next Tuesday will examine whether alleged falsified government research documents compromised scientific justification for storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, Nev.” The investigation was motivated by the DOE announcing on 16 March possible irregularities in the data or models used to study Yucca Mountain.

At issue is the fidelity (or perceptions thereof) of the science used to justify the decision to select Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste repository. The Daytona New-Journal editorializes,

“Mistrust has since accompanied any government claim that Yucca is the safe repository the government claims it to be. Mistrust intensified this month when Energy Department e-mails came to light showing that the department was falsifying scientific records at the mountain. Instruments designed to measure electrical, gaseous and liquid conditions inside the mountain were being certified as ready for use before the department even had them in hand, while a United States Geological Survey employee admitted to falsifying other work. The employee claimed he was not the only one doing so. The falsified documents were part of an application process leading up to the licensing of Yucca Mountain’s readiness for receiving waste. The licensing is designed to certify that the science used to judge Yucca Mountain safe for receiving waste is reliable. But if the licensing process itself is a lie, what is there to trust about the government’s science on Yucca Mountain?”

The alleged falsification of documents occurred 1998-2000 when the administration of Bill Clinton was pushing toward a decision on Yucca Mountain. President Clinton wrote in a 2000 letter to Congress,

“Since 1993, my Administration has been conducting a rigorous world-class scientific and technical program to evaluate the suitability of the Yucca Mountain, Nevada, site for use as a repository. The work being done at Yucca Mountain represents a significant scientific and technical undertaking, and public confidence in this first-of-a-kind effort is essential… There is no scientific reason to delay issuance of these final radiation standards beyond the last year of this Administration; in fact, waiting until next year to issue these standards could have the unintended effect of delaying a recommendation on whether or not to go forward with Yucca Mountain.” (Although it is worth noting that since leaving office Clinton has apparently changed his mind and come out against Yucca Mountain.)

Next week’s hearing should go some way toward clarifying the details of the current allegations and their political or policy implications for the future of Yucca Mountain and centralized nuclear waste storage. Meantime, I’d like to ask a question. Does the data thus far available suggest a “misuse of science” under the Clinton Administration, somewhat akin to recent allegations made of the Bush Administration? If so why? If not why not?

We’d welcome your thoughts in the comments.

[For background information that might be useful in thinking about this question, please have a look at this report (PDF): Pielke, Jr., R. A. (ed.), 2004. Report on the Misuse of Science in the Administrations of George H.W. Bush (1989-1993) and William J. Clinton (1993-2001). By the Students in ENVS 4800, Maymester 2004, University of Colorado, June.]

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