Thursday, April 3, 2008 | 3:23 p.m.
WASHINGTON — Nevada’s lawmakers in Washington are unanimously calling for the Energy department to sever its ties with a law firm retained to help license the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project following what they called a “scathing” internal review of the $100 million contract.
The Energy department’s Inspector General, in a report today, found it “disturbing” that department officials did not better document their decision to reverse past practices and hire a firm with a known conflict of interest.
The law firm, Morgan, Lewis and Bockius, represents nuclear utility companies that are suing the government over delays in opening Yucca Mountain as the nation’s nuclear waste repository. The department faces $7 billion in legal liability from the suits.
The department has previously said the conflict could be waived by walling off employees who are working on the lawsuits from those working on Yucca Mountain. The contract was awarded in November and the Nevada delegation immediately called for the investigation.
Today’s report said that the department could have hired a firm without a conflict. It added that during past hiring decisions, the department had determined hiring firms with similar conflicts and mitigation plans would be unacceptable.
The Inspector General cited a 1999 Energy department memo that said the department “cannot afford a public perception that its licensing decisions regarding the repository were influenced by a firm that owes loyalties to the nuclear utilities.”
The report concluded the department did not adequately explain the role reversal. “Given the controversial nature of the Yucca Mountain Project; the history of allegations concerning conflicts of interest; and, the likely public scrutiny of any Yucca Mountain Project legal services contract, we found the absence of such documentation disturbing,” the report said.
The nuclear waste repository is being planned for Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid led the delegation in calling for the department to recuse the firm. “It is unacceptable that the Department is willing to set aside any and all integrity in a rush to implement its dangerous plan of shipping 77,000 tons of nuclear waste across the country to Nevada,” Reid said in a statement with the other lawmakers.
However, Energy spokeswoman Megan Barnett said the report concludes the department followed all legal and organizational regulations governing conflicts.
"Contrary to the assertions of the Nevada Congressional delegation, nothing here warrants the recusal,” Barnett said in a statement.
“Our focus has been on obtaining the best legal services for the Department, consistent with applicable legal and regulatory requirements.”