WASHINGTON, July 27 — The law firm hired to advise the Energy Department on how to open a nuclear- waste dump at Yucca Mountain, near Las Vegas, was simultaneously lobbying Congress and the administration on behalf of the nuclear power industry about crucial decisions involving the project.
Critics call this 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 so far to determine whether the site is suitable to isolate wastes for millenniums to come.
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 also taking money from the industry to assure that the site was approved.
"You could make a case that every piece of data since 1992 is tainted," said Robert R. Loux, the head of the Nevada Nuclear Projects Office, a state agency created to oppose the repository.
Senator Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, said, "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?"
Mr. Reid said the Energy Department should have known better.
But a spokeswoman at the department, Jill Schroeder, said, "We found them eminently qualified. We have not found a conflict of interest."
Referring to the Yucca site, Ms. Schroeder described the firm's role as helping the department decide "whether or not it 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. Congress picked Yucca as the lead candidate for the nuclear disposal site in 1987.
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 would return repeated phone calls seeking comment.
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."
At the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's trade association, which hired Winston & Strawn as its lobbyist, Mitch Singer, a spokesman, said, "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. He said the firm was "very conservative" about avoiding the appearance of a conflict.
Asked if the firm had compromised its work for the Energy Department, Mr. Singer said, "I can't answer what went on in the past."
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, a volcanic ridge 90 miles north of Las Vegas. 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, LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae, which complained that this amounted to the government's paying Winston & Strawn to review its own work. That case is pending in Federal District Court.
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.
"That would have come up in discussion," said a member of the five- person commission in the period.
This person said he was lobbied by James R. Curtiss, a partner with Winston & Strawn who is listed as a lobbyist in the disclosure forms. Mr. Curtiss himself served on the commission from 1988 to 1993.
Mr. Curtiss and another partner at the firm listed as a lobbyist for the industry, Beryl F. Anthony Jr., a former member of the House of Representatives, did not return numerous phone calls.
Energy Department regulations on the contractors doing business with it say conflicts of interest should be avoided "to ensure that the contractor is not biased because of its financial, contractual, organizational or other interest which relate to work under the contract."
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company