A federal appeals court ruling Tuesday could delay the Energy Department's plan to open the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump after conflict of interest charges were leveled at the law firm that worked on the government's permit application.
The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. sent the case back to U.S. District Court to determine if the Energy Department had ruled out any conflict of interest before it hired its legal counsel, Chicago-based Winston & Strawn,
The law firm, which spent two years preparing the department's application for a Nuclear Regulatory Commission permit, withdrew as counsel in November 2001 after the allegations were raised. The firm had done work for a Yucca Mountain contractor and also lobbied for a pro-nuclear group.
If a judge finds the Energy Department didn't consider the potential conflict, it could award the contract to another law firm, the Las Vegas Sun reported.
That could mean a delay in the project because all of Winston's work could be reviewed, said Washington attorney Joe Egan, who works for Nevada on its opposition to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site, about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
"This is amazing," Egan said. "This is a blow-out victory for Nevada."
The court's ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed by LeBoeuf, Lamb, Green and MacRae, a law firm that had bid and lost the contract.
The appellate court rule the Energy Department must provide evidence that the law firm was qualified to bid despite the conflict. If it cannot, the court could award the contract to LeBoeuf, the judges said.
The Energy Department, which has been without a legal counsel since the law firm left, plans to submit its application by the end of 2004, and hopes to open Yucca Mountain by 2010.
Energy Department spokesman Joe Davis declined comment on the ruling, but said it should not delay the Yucca Mountain project.
"We are reviewing the court's decision," Davis said. "Our plan remains to submit a license application to the (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) by the end of 2004."