A government scientist in charge of reviewing the safety of the Yucca Mountain radioactive waste dump in Nevada is accusing his bosses of letting "political pressures" and "manipulation" taint the process.
Aby Mohseni, acting head of high-level waste repository safety, says in prepared testimony for a House hearing Friday that Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman Gregory Jaczko and other senior officials have allowed politics to influence the staff's scientific work.
"Apparently, the NRC's senior leadership is ineffective in upholding the integrity of this agency," Mohseni says. "This is not where an independent safety organization should be."
Jaczko, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Yucca's leading opponent, was appointed to lead the independent agency in 2009 by President Barack Obama. Since then, he has made a series of decisions to delay, hide or halt work on the Nevada dump, a project Obama promised to kill in his campaign for the White House.
Jaczko's actions have been criticized by House Republicans, by his own scientific staff and by the NRC's Inspector General. The IG report found that Jaczko acted within his authority and broke no laws. But it also concluded that to get his way on the issue he failed to be forthcoming with other commissioners.
Mohseni's remarks are the most scathing to date from inside the agency, and suggest that not much has changed since the Inspector General's report or investigations by Republicans in Congress. Mohseni alleges that under Jaczko, information has been and continues to be suppressed and manipulated for political purposes.
A nuclear engineer, Mohseni has worked for the NRC since 1990. He had been the second-highest-ranking person in the repository safety division since 2006, and was named acting director after the Japan nuclear disaster forced the agency to juggle positions.
"We were unprepared for the political pressures and manipulation of our scientific and licensing processes that would come with the appointment of Chairman Jaczko in 2009," Mohseni says. Such manipulation, he said, is an assault on the agency's congressionally mandated mission.
By law, the NRC must review the government's license application for the Yucca dump. But the process became muddied after Energy Secretary Steven Chu sought to withdraw the application for Yucca last March, saying it was not "a workable option." The licensing board said the government failed to make a scientific case for why the application should be withdrawn. It has been in limbo ever since.
With no vote from the commission on whether to uphold the licensing board's decision, staff continued with their review, knowing that they could still be called on for their expertise. In October Jaczko said he was shutting down the work, a decision he said he was making for budgetary reasons.
Earlier this year, Mohseni was one of four scientists to file objections to a memo because it failed to mention Jaczko's role in the decision to shut down the scientific review. The staff said senior managers working on the memo refused repeated attempts to put in writing that it was Jaczko's decision alone.
Catherine Haney, the memo's author, will tell the House panel it provided the information needed to keep the commission fully informed. In her prepared testimony, she also defends the move to close down the safety review, saying that the technical work will be preserved so it can be used if the Yucca Mountain project is resurrected.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Mohseni said he could no longer give his bosses the benefit of the doubt. Mohseni just last week took the rare step of appealing a decision to the commission, after senior managers told him that a technical document on the risks Yucca Mountain would pose after it was closed could not be released because it had to be revised. The report, at the direction of Jaczko, was already stripped of any scientific judgments _ but House aides who have reviewed it said it concluded Yucca was safe.
"It is becoming a little more obvious to all the staff here that things are not right," Mohseni said. "It has been a struggle for me to find a way to bring light on this issue so that at some point we will get this agency back on track to where it needs to be. Once politics penetrates the barrier into staff activities, we will quickly lose credibility with the public."
An NRC spokesman said the agency would have no comment about Mohseni's remarks, or those of the other scientists scheduled to testify Friday.
While their remarks cover similar ground, none are as strongly-worded as Mohseni's. But one of government experts, Janet Kotra, who has worked on Yucca for nearly 30 years, will plead lawmakers for help.
Kotra argues that the full scientific review, with the staff's conclusions, should be made public.