LAS VEGAS — The law firm counseling the Energy Department on how to open a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain was also taking money from the nuclear power industry to assure the site was approved.
Critics say the revelation casts doubt on the quality of legal and technical work that cost the government $4.5 billion, The New York Times reported Saturday.
"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.
The law firm, Winston and Strawn, was paid by the Energy Department and one of its contractors while simultaneously lobbying Congress on behalf of the nuclear power industry.
"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?" said Nevada Sen. Harry Reid.
Winston and Strawn lawyers did not return the newspaper's calls for comment. An Energy Department spokeswoman said there was no conflict of interest.
"We found them eminently qualified," Jill Schroeder said.
Schroeder said the lawyers helped the department decide if Yucca Mountain could be licensed to handle high-level nuclear waste. A decision on whether to open the site is to be made by the end of the year, and a recommendation will be forwarded to the president.
In 1992, Winston and Strawn was hired as a subcontractor to the TRW Corp., then the Energy Department's main contractor for examining the site. The firm advised 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. A protest was filed by a competing law firm, LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene and MacRae, complaining that the government was paying Winston and Strawn to review its own work. That case is pending in federal court.
The nuclear power industry is eager to find a permanent disposal site. Under a 1982 law, the department was supposed to begin accepting waste from the utilities in 1998. Yucca was selected as the lead candidate by Congress in 1987.
Winston and Strawn filed a disclosure form with Congress saying it stopped lobbying on July 11. The disclosure forms for previous 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."