01/25/2012 - 05:38

Energy.gov: Where information goes to die

Dawn Stover

Dawn Stover

Stover is a science writer based in the Pacific Northwest and is a contributing editor at the Bulletin. Her work has appeared in ...

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We live in an Information Age. Never before have we had so much data at our fingertips, thanks to digitization and the Internet. But information is only useful if it is accessible, searchable, and intelligible.

Last August, the US Energy Department proudly announced a "comprehensive website reform, making Energy.gov a cutting-edge, interactive information platform and saving taxpayers more than $10 million annually." In short, the government eliminated 12 separate department program sites and merged them into one (with plans to add many more), upgraded the content-management system, and streamlined information into the cloud. In theory, Energy.gov is now the "cutting-edge" go-to site for information on everything from home weatherization to nuclear research. In practice, however, it's more often a black hole.

For example, when I tried to find the Energy Department's site-suitability evaluation for the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, a pivotal document issued in 2002 by the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, here's what happened: I typed "Yucca Mountain" into the site's search engine and received a list of 22 results, along with a question: "Did you mean: yucca maintain?" Huh? Thanks, but no.

Wait a minute -- 22 results? For a decades-long research effort that cost $10 billion and generated more than three million documents exploring one of the most contentious issues of our time?

Despite this unpromising start, the top two search results seemed like what I was looking for, although I wondered why they both had the same title ("Viability Assessment of a Repository at Yucca Mountain"), with no date or explanation of any kind. I clicked on the first link, which led to a page with only slightly more information: "The introduction and site characteristics of the viability assessment of a repository at Yucca Mountain." If I wanted to learn more about this document, I was obliged to download the 10-megabyte PDF. I did so, only to discover that it was Volume 1 of a 1998 assessment. Not what I was looking for.

It was the same story with the second result, which led to Volume 3 of the 1998 assessment. But of course I didn't know that until I downloaded another 25 megabytes.

I was pretty sure that the third result was not the missing Volume 2, because it had a different title: "Suitability of the Yucca Mountain Site Characterization and for Development as a Reposition." A reposition? Whatever. I clicked on it and read this summary: "A chapter detailling [sic] the suitability of the Yucca Mountain Site." It turned out to be a 250-page document with no title page or date; it began somewhere in the middle of the table of contents and was not searchable. Strike three. (By contrast, Google does far better, offering more than a million results for Yucca Mountain -- but in a satisfying order of relevance -- and suggesting related searches that might quickly lead to the 2002 site evaluation.)

The Energy Department's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, which once posted Yucca Mountain project documents on its website, closed in September 2010. All of its documents were transferred to the Office of Legacy Management, where I'm told they can be requested using the Freedom of Information Act process, which usually works something like this: Send a letter, wait a few months, and maybe you'll get a response. Maybe. Not only is that inconvenient, but it's also expensive. Instead of a simple download, I practically have to start a letter-writing campaign in order to get assistance from a paid federal employee. Never mind the fiscal drain on my own time. And all of this, remember, is for a document so rare and precious that it was online in full for years.

The Office of Legacy Management (known as LM) oversees a huge records-management facility in West Virginia that opened in December 2009 and boasts a "state of the art electronic record keeping system." LM even requested a $3 million increase in its 2012 budget just to manage the Yucca Mountain records and information systems. But like Energy.gov, the LM website has no section for Yucca Mountain, and its search engine spits out links to a random assortment of PDFs -- with no summaries or index to provide guidance. Apparently that "state of the art electronic record keeping system" doesn't include any provisions for accessing documents online.

The General Accountability Office warned of these problems last May in a report commissioned by House Republicans, which cautioned that Yucca Mountain documents would no longer be electronically accessible to the public or to scientists after the project shut down. And it's not just Yucca Mountain. Search Energy.gov for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, and you get only 33 results. For Hanford, only 20 results. For the AP1000 reactor, a grand total of six. Documents of all sorts have simply disappeared from public view as a result of website consolidation and reorganization, and this has repercussions not just for the general public and independent researchers but also for federal employees and contractors who use the Energy Department website and are no longer able to refer to historic documents -- such as loan guarantees for nuclear power plants or Environmental Impact Statements for energy projects.

In the latest phase of the Energy.gov "reform," additional websites will migrate there over the coming months. Does the overhauled website look prettier and make it easier for visitors to get localized information about tax credits, rebates, and energy-saving tips? Yes. But people who want to dig deeper into energy information may encounter dead ends.

By contrast, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) website is a gold mine of information. It has comprehensive collections of documents, organized by topic area as well as by facility location. Searches generate results that include titles and descriptions of the documents available. And in December, the NRC announced enhancements -- be still my heart! -- that include a more powerful and versatile search engine and the ability for users to save searches as web links for streamlined access to frequently used documents. The NRC even has a free service that automatically notifies subscribers about new documents on selected topics. (Swoon.)

Every federal agency brags about its commitment to the Obama administration's goal of open government. Unfortunately, each agency charts its own path toward this goal, with different ideas about what should be made available and how it should be structured. For some departments, "open government" means a serious effort to make information easier to find. For others, it simply means summer interns scanning documents into PDFs with poorly worded tags, posting newsy articles with attractive photos, and opening Twitter and Facebook accounts. Unfortunately, the latter is where many federal energy documents seem to be headed.

Editor's Note: After this column was published on January 25, Energy.gov responded to Stover's concerns.