Thursday, March 13, 2008 | 5:44 p.m.
WASHINGTON -- Yucca Mountain is back on track, the Energy department said Thursday, despite steep budget cuts engineered by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
The head of the Yucca Mountain project now believes he will meet the June 30 deadline to submit the project’s license application, even after seeing more than $100 million slashed from his fiscal 2008 budget. He had earlier put the deadline in doubt.
But all is not well with the proposed nuclear waste repository.
Separately on Thursday, Reid’s office released documents detailing the Energy department’s contract with Morgan Lewis, the law firm the senator believes has a conflict of interest and should be taken off the Yucca Mountain project.
The firm, hired in 2007 to help shepherd Yucca Mountain’s license through the regulatory process, also represents utility companies suing the Energy department over the project’s delay. (The government faces enormous liabilities, running more than $7 billion, because it has been unable to open Yucca Mountain as promised, leaving the companies to incur costs for storing nuclear waste on site.)
The contract documents explain the firm’s plans for avoiding the conflict by walling off attorneys working on the Yucca Mountain license from those handling the utility cases.
The firm would forbid attorneys in either camp from discussing or disclosing any information about their work. It is would be creating secure computer systems and even plastering file cabinets with warning stickers advising staff that contents are off-limits.
The company wrote that it has experience dealing with any potential conflicts, which "may be resolved through disclosure, reciprocal waivers, and as an extra safeguard, screening procedures."
The Energy department consented to the arrangement, according to the documents, in part because it believes that the pool of available firms is “severely limited and all such potential contractors are likely to be encumbered by the same types of representational conflicts.”
Reid is not convinced. “Disclosure doesn’t eliminate the conflicts,” spokesman Jon Summers said, adding his boss is awaiting a report from the Energy department’s Inspector General, which he hopes will conclude, as he said the Nevada delegation has, that the firm is "unfit to be working on Yucca Mountain.”