MANY MYSTERIES still surround the infamous "Yucca Mountain e-mails," a series of private exchanges among government scientists that recently became the subject of Energy Department and congressional investigations. Taken on their own, the missives seem to confirm environmentalists' and Nevadans' worst fears about the construction of a permanent storage site for nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert. The still-anonymous U.S. Geological Survey employees wrote to one another about fudging data, about insufficient resources to complete "quality assurance" procedures ("if they really want the stuff they'll have to pay to do it right," said one) and about possible flaws in the work. Worse, the scientists appeared to be under pressure to prove that the site was safe. Their bosses, one wrote, had "now reached a point where they need to have certain items work no matter what."
The significance of these particular scientists isn't yet clear. Nor is it yet clear that the work they were doing was important enough to negate the work of many other scientists who have studied the long-term geology of Yucca Mountain for many years. The project they were involved in -- creating computer models of future water infiltration of the site -- ended in 2002, according to the Energy Department, and the work they did has been substantiated by other scientists.
But the administration had better take them seriously, making clear just what research is compromised. The e-mails are disturbing on their face and surely will reinvigorate political opposition in Nevada and elsewhere. As long as construction of a permanent storage site is indefinitely delayed, nuclear waste will continue to sit in 139 much less secure sites around the country. The lack of a long-term storage facility also will, and should, prevent the construction of new nuclear plants.
Nuclear power, because it does not create greenhouse gases and does not depend on imported fossil fuel, is often spoken of as an energy source for the future. But if the issue of nuclear waste is not given higher priority, nuclear power will certainly become the fuel of the past. Neither the Energy Department nor the White House -- nor, for that matter, the nuclear industry -- will do themselves any favors by ignoring or dismissing the e-mail scandal, or by trying to pretend that it doesn't really affect the politics of the project.