Saturday, August 09, 2003
Copyright Las Vegas Review-Journal

DOE seeks law that could tighten Yucca secrecy

Some lawmakers, watchdog groups raise concerns about proposal


WASHINGTON -- The Department of Energy is seeking a new law from Congress that could tighten secrecy on the Yucca Mountain Project.

A small piece of legislation expands DOE control on information about unclassified security-related aspects of nuclear waste storage facilities and factories that enrich uranium for nuclear fuel.

Some lawmakers and watchdog groups said they fear it could lead DOE to restrict information about transportation routes to the proposed Yucca Mountain repository or limit disclosures about possible threats to the Nevada site from airplane crashes.

The provision "gives the Department of Energy the authority to shut the American public out of the Yucca Mountain Project process," Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., said in a July 22 letter to House Armed Services Committee leaders that was co-signed by Reps. Jim Gibbons and Jon Porter, both R-Nev.

Energy Department spokesman Joe Davis said such broad concern is unwarranted. He described the effort as a "safeguards and security step we are taking post 9-11."

"When you are talking about nuclear facilities and transportation of hazardous cargo, any reasonable person will believe in a post 9-11 world some precautions need to be taken to address security," Davis said.

The DOE-requested provision was made part of a defense authorization bill that passed the House on May 21. The bill is awaiting a conference committee with the Senate that is expected to get under way when Congress returns from recess in September.

Organizations that oppose plans for a Yucca Mountain repository intend to send letters to conference negotiators urging them to kill the proposal, said Lisa Gue, policy analyst for Public Citizen, a government monitoring group.

"This would allow the Department of Energy broad discretion to not make public any information about the Yucca Mountain Project by playing the security card," Gue said.

Specifically, the legislation gives DOE broader authority to designate "unclassified controlled nuclear information," a category historically applied to nuclear weapons facilities, said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy.

"This is information that isn't made public for security reasons but also not classified so it can be shared with law enforcement and emergency response personnel who probably wouldn't have clearance," Aftergood explained.

The new legislation "would expand it to other DOE facilities that are not necessarily defense-related," Aftergood said.

Davis said DOE believes the 1954 Atomic Energy Act that sets rules for handling of nuclear information needs updating to reflect security considerations at waste storage and uranium processing plants. "Those old definitions don't cover us today," he said.

"It would be up to our office of security as to what information would be released if these new definitions are adopted," Davis said.

Gibbons, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, has complained to leaders the provision is overly broad, spokeswoman Amy Spanbauer said. Gibbons was traveling overseas and could not be contacted.

"His position is that if the information is so important to keep from the public, then classify the information," Spanbauer said. "If you keep it unclassified, there's no reason why the public shouldn't have the ability to access it."

Aftergood said the Energy Department "abused" the law in the past to withhold unclassified information.

"But in the last several years, DOE has eliminated most of that abuse," he said. "They're employing it in a fairly rational and circumscribed manner."

Aftergood said when he saw the legislation, "I looked at this and wondered how upset I should be, and concluded I probably should not," he said.

He added, however, that skeptics raise "legitimate questions. I think this is an authority that lends itself to abuse if it is not carefully monitored. Perhaps this provision could be tweaked."

Citing sources on Capitol Hill, Gue said DOE "came in with this language specifically for Yucca Mountain." A second congressional official said DOE has floated a compromise limiting the provision to the Yucca project and research reactors at universities.

Davis said the Nevada nuclear waste project is not driving the issue. "The DOE has facilities all over the country. We have a bigger job than just Yucca Mountain," he said.