DOE budget would prioritize nuclear

From left, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price listen as President Donald Trump speaks during a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, March 13, 2017. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget proposal would likely bolster certain Idaho National Laboratory nuclear defense programs while stifling research and development projects.

The budget proposes a 5.6 percent — $1.7 billion — reduction in the Department of Energy’s current funding of $28 billion.

Though the decrease pales in comparison to some cuts to other departments, DOE money would be redistributed to eliminate certain programs in favor of others.

The budget likely will change considerably as it travels through Congress, which must approve it.

Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson is the Republican chairman of the Energy and Water Subcommittee, which oversees INL. Simpson has historically championed INL funding, though he didn’t mention the lab Thursday in a prepared statement.

“Once we receive the full budget, our subcommittee will do what it does every year; it will scrutinize the request and hold hearings with administration officials to inform our line-by-line funding decisions,” he wrote in the statement. “The power of the purse ultimately lies with Congress, and it is Congress that will need to strike the balance between cutting unnecessary programs and protecting vital ones that foster economic growth and increase national security.”

INL representatives declined to comment on the proposed budget.

As it sits, Trump’s budget blueprint calls for an increase in funding for the National Nuclear Security Administration, which maintains the nation’s nuclear stockpile.

About 17 percent — $158 million — of INL’s fiscal year 2015 funding came from the National Nuclear Security Administration.

The Office of Environmental Management would receive $6.5 billion, a slight increase over the office’s $6.4 billion fiscal year 2017 budget. The office oversees radioactive waste cleanup at DOE sites.

In addition, the budget reserves $120 million to restart licensing activities for Yucca Mountain, the Nevada nuclear waste repository that was sidelined by the Obama administration. Yucca could be important for Idaho, which has spent nuclear fuel to get rid of. (The Associated Press reported Thursday that Nevada’s congressional delegation was close to united against restarting a licensing process for a national nuclear waste dump in the desert outside Las Vegas.)

The budget also vowed support for cybersecurity and grid resiliency research, which fall under INL’s fast-growing national security sector.

Increases in program funding would be offset in part by a $900 million cut to the Office of Science and elimination of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, the Title 17 Innovative Technology Loan Guarantee Program and the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing Program.

“…The private sector is better positioned to finance disruptive energy research and development and to commercialize innovative technologies,” according to the budget.

INL conducts very limited research under those programs, said former INL director John Grossenbacher, who led the lab for a decade, retiring in 2015.

Instead, clean energy and climate research and development could be impacted by changes to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy budget, which contributes to electric bar battery, bio feedstock and biofuel research at INL.

Though details in Trump’s “skinny budget” are sparse, it proposes to focus funding in that office on “limited, early-stage applied energy research and development activities where the federal role is stronger.”

“I think the area that people at the lab will be concerned about is the (Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy) programs,” Grossenbacher said. “In Congress in general, the Democrats would plus up EERE and the Republicans would try to level the playing field a little by adding money to nuclear energy and fossil fuel programs.”

Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy funding comprised only 3.6 percent of INL’s fiscal year 2015 budget.

The federal budget also proposed shifting toward early-stage applied energy research in Office of Nuclear Energy funding.

The Office of Nuclear Energy is by far INL’s largest funding source; it contributed $465 million, or just over half of the site’s fiscal year 2015 budget. Among other projects, Office of Nuclear Energy funding supports INL’s Advanced Test Reactor, a one-of-a-kind research reactor that allows INL and other national laboratories to test fuels and materials.

Funding changes to those two offices, a few other programs and elimination of the Weatherization Assistance Program and the State Energy Program — which provide energy efficiency-related grants to states — would cut $2 billion from the current DOE budget.

The budget doesn’t outline the specifics of any cuts but INL would likely feel any significant reduction to the Office of Nuclear Energy.

Reporter Kevin Trevellyan can be reached at 542-6762.