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Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Site Corruption: Law firm for government lobbied for nuclear industry
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Source: Las Vegas Sun

July 28, 2001

Law firm for government lobbied for nuclear industry

LAS VEGAS (AP) - The law firm hired to advise the Energy Department on how to open a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain was simultaneously taking money from the nuclear power industry to assure that the site was approved.

Critics call it a conflict and say it casts doubt on years of legal and technical work at Yucca Mountain, where the government has spent $4.5 billion to determine whether the site is suitable to store high-level nuclear waste.

The law firm, Winston & Strawn, was being paid by the Energy Department and one of its contractors to help determine if the site was suitable, while lobbying Congress and the administration on behalf of the nuclear power industry.

"You could make a case that every piece of data since 1992 is tainted," said Robert R. Loux, head of the Nevada Nuclear Projects Office, a state agency created to oppose the repository 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the Energy Department should have known better.

"Of course it's a conflict. What would happen if, when I was practicing law, somebody came to me and had a problem and I took money from them, and somebody else gave me money to sue them?"

But a spokeswoman at the department said the DOE has not found a conflict of interest. "We found them eminently qualified," Jill Schroeder said.

Schroeder described the firm's role as helping the department decide whether or not Yucca Mountain could be licensed. The department has not made a decision on opening the site, but anticipates doing so by the end of the year. It is then to make a recommendation to the president.

The nuclear power industry is eager to find a permanent disposal site for its waste and is pushing the government to open Yucca Mountain. Under a 1982 law, the department was supposed to begin accepting waste from the utilities in 1998.

The dual role by Winston & Strawn seems likely to add more uncertainty to the project, which is already 12 years behind schedule and faces more technical and legal challenges.

The firm filed a disclosure form with Congress saying it stopped the lobbying on July 11, but no one at the firm returned phone calls seeking comment. Winston & Strawn has offices in several cities, including Washington, D.C.

The disclosure forms for the early years list several bills on which it lobbied. The bills would have required the department to accept waste for temporary storage in anticipation of opening the site. In later years, the firm listed the subject of its lobbying as "nuclear issues."

The firm was "very conservative" about avoiding the appearance of a conflict," said Mitch Singer, spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's trade association, which hired the law firm as its lobbyist.

"Why the relationship was ended, the only thing I can think is because they're doing all this work for the Department of Energy, and they felt it would be a conflict if they were continuing to do work" (for the institute).

Winston & Strawn picked up its first major role at Yucca Mountain in 1992, when it was hired as a subcontractor to the TRW Corporation, then the Energy Department's main contractor for examining the mountain. The firm's job was to advise TRW on preparing an application for a license, which the department was supposed to submit to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

In 1999, the department hired the firm to review the application before submitting it to the regulatory agency. A protest was filed by a competing law firm, New York-based LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae, which complained that the government was paying Winston & Strawn to review its own work. That case is pending in federal court in Washington, D.C.

While working for TRW and the Energy Department, the firm also lobbied the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on an issue crucial to Yucca Mountain: establishing the maximum radiation dose people living near the site should be exposed to.

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