Under Trump, INL pivots its nuclear message


Idaho National Laboratory officials are considering how to shift their message under a Trump administration that has sent mixed signals on energy research and the existence of climate change.

When discussing the lab’s nuclear research capabilities, officials plan to focus more on themes such as energy security, nonproliferation and job creation — and less on climate change.

“We’re actively talking right now, and working to pivot our strategy to reflect the new administration’s priorities,” INL Director Mark Peters said in an interview earlier this month.

Lab officials and other experts say they expect funding levels for INL’s nuclear and national security missions to remain largely the same under Trump, while renewable energy research — a relatively small part of the INL budget — could take a big hit. But concrete details won’t be known until more U.S. Department of Energy leadership positions are announced, and a Trump budget proposal is released.

“I maintain that there’s opportunity,” Peters said. “I’m particularly excited about broadening the nuclear conversation.”

New leadership

One thing is clear: The DOE — like nearly all federal agencies under Trump — is set to undergo sweeping changes.

Those changes most likely will be overseen by former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who underwent a Thursday confirmation hearing with Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. A vote by the committee, and later the full Senate, is expected in the coming days.

Perry’s background is dramatically different from the previous energy secretary Ernest Moniz, a nuclear physicist who worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Moniz is a “unique guy,” Peters said.

“You don’t typically get a Ph.D, a nuclear physicist, who can walk around Washington the way he could, and be effective,” Peters said. But that “certainly doesn’t say you can’t have a person with a very different set of qualifications who can’t be effective as well.”

Perry will be a “contrast,” Peters said, but not in a bad way. “He comes with strong CEO capabilities. He’s obviously a strong politician, has strong executive capabilities. He’s thought about energy.”

Perry also mentioned those leadership strengths — and his lack of a technical background — during the confirmation hearing.

“One of the things that I bring to you is my 14 years of managing the 12th largest economy in the world,” he said. “On a daily basis, I will have men and women who I trust, who have the expertise and who have the authority to be able to implement these (DOE) programs.”

Contrasting narratives

At the hearing, Perry outlined an “all-of-the-above” energy approach he would take as leader of the DOE. It was an approach he said included renewable energy in an effort to address climate change. He pledged to protect DOE budgets on “all of the science,” which would include research at the national laboratories.

But a report by The Hill, published last week, said Trump staffers were in fact considering eliminating DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, and pulling back DOE research funding in several other areas. It said the proposed cuts were similar to those pitched last year by the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Todd Allen, a former INL deputy director now with the energy think tank Third Way, said the big question is: Which of these two DOE narratives will the new administration follow?

If it follows the vision outlined by Perry, the result would be good for INL and “fairly consistent” with past administrations, Allen said. If it follows the blueprint from the Heritage Foundation, the result would damage INL and science at large inside the DOE.

Eliminating DOE’s Office of Energy’s Efficiency and Renewable Energy would sting at INL. But it wouldn’t be fatal — the office provides less than 4 percent of INL’s budget. (That’s versus roughly 50 percent that comes from DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy, and approximately 17 percent from the department’s National Nuclear Security Administration.)

INL officials will be watching closely who is appointed for leadership positions under Perry, especially in the Office of Nuclear Energy. The previous leader of the department, John Kotek — who had strong ties to Idaho and INL — recently departed for a position with the Nuclear Energy Institute.

“I’m focused like a laser on who replaces John,” Peters said. “That’s important to us, because we’re that lab (under Office of Nuclear Energy). So they steward this laboratory. That person is a partner for us.”

Peters — who said he has “continued optimism” about the coming years — said more details will be known once Perry has a full leadership team in place and the first budget cycle is complete.

“They’re going to come in and finalize the 2018 budget (proposal) real quick. And then we’ll start to get a sense. By spring, you start to get a sense of where things are headed, I would say.”

Luke Ramseth can be reached at 542-6763. Twitter: @lramseth