updated 6/29/2005 2:57:29 PM ET 2005-06-29T18:57:29

A scientist at the center of a controversy over potential falsification of documents about the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump insisted before Congress on Wednesday that he did not alter paperwork on the project.

“I have never falsified any documents related to Yucca Mountain or any other project,” Joseph Hevesi, a United States Geological Survey hydrologist in Sacramento, told a House Government Reform subcommittee.

The panel is investigating e-mails written by Hevesi and other scientists that, according to critics, seem to suggest they changed work to reach a predetermined conclusion. The existence of the e-mails, written between 1998 and 2000, was made public by the Energy Department in March.

Hevesi was appearing under subpoena before the panel chaired by Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev.

'Identical files' claimed
Before the testimony, Porter read portions of e-mails Hevesi had written.

Among them: “In the end I keep track of two sets of files, the ones that will keep QA happy and the ones that were actually used.” QA refers to quality assurance.

Explaining that message, Hevesi said that the only difference between the two sets was that the set for quality assurance had a header field.

“All the numbers in those files are identical, so in essence they are identical files,” Hevesi said.

He said he never felt pressure from his managers to reach a specific result, and defended the work he and his colleagues were doing.

“I feel the work is sound, and I realize it doesn’t seem that way with these e-mails,” Hevesi told lawmakers. “The e-mails I characterize, myself, as being water-cooler talk, and I would not do that again in hindsight.”

Issue over water seepage
Hevesi and others were studying how water moved through the desert site 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas where the government wants to store 77,000 tons of commercial and defense nuclear waste for at least 10,000 years. The USGS validated Energy Department conclusions that water seepage was relatively slow, so radiation would be less likely to escape.

A planned completion date of 2010 for the Yucca project was recently abandoned by Energy Department officials.

Hevesi said he did feel pressure to meet deadlines and did wish for more resources. But he described his frustration as a natural conflict between the approach of scientists and the approach of project managers.

“There were deadlines that would require a more simplified approach to solving a scientific issue, but that’s always going to be the case,” Hevesi said. “As a scientist, we have a tendency to put too many resources into a problem because we’re after the right answer, which is the true answer, and in many cases you can never get to that point.”

“I placed things in e-mails out of emotional response,” Hevesi said.

Chairman from Nevada
He encountered skepticism from Porter, who like the rest of Nevada’s congressional delegation is trying to stop the Yucca project. Other subcommittee members were more sympathetic.

“Even members of Congress, if someone had to look at all our e-mails they might have a field day,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.

The e-mails are under investigation by the inspectors general of the Energy Department and the U.S. Geological Survey, with help from the FBI. Hevesi said the ongoing investigations were the reason he refused to meet voluntarily with the subcommittee.

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