The Energy and Water appropriations bill Congress is expected to take up next week represents a mixed bag for Idaho National Laboratory, with spending on some priorities kept flat and slight increases for others.
The U.S. House Appropriations Committee voted along party lines earlier this month, with the Democrats in favor and the Republicans opposed, to advance the bill. At $49.6 billion in the regular budget, it represents a $1.26 billion increase over this year’s spending, according to a committee reporting summarizing the bill. However, on top of this it also includes an additional $23.5 billion in emergency one-time funding meant to bolster various clean energy projects and aid in recovery from the coronavirus pandemic that has led to pushback from Republicans. It and six other spending bills are expected to be considered by the full House this week, according to a news release from the committee.
The overall proposed DOE budget is $41 billion, which is $2.3 billion higher than this year and $5.1 billion higher than what Trump requested. Funding for the Office of Nuclear Energy is set at $1.4 billion, which is $256 million higher than President Donald Trump’s request but a bit lower than this year’s funding.
Funding for nuclear waste cleanup at the U.S. Department of Energy desert site west of Idaho Falls will stay flat at $433.5 million, which is significantly higher than the $257 million Trump requested. The House appropriations bill contains $240 million for demonstration reactors, including $30 million for the National Reactor Innovation Center, where INL will partner with private companies to test new nuclear reactors. This is a $10 million increase for the innovation center.
Funding for infrastructure at Idaho National Laboratory is set at $306 million, or $1 million more than this year. This includes an increase in funding to finish the Sample Preparation Laboratory at the Materials and Fuels Complex, which was funded at $18 million in the 2020 fiscal year and would get $26 million in 2021 under the House bill. It is expected to open in 2022.
The bill contains $105 million for advanced small modular reactors, a $5 million increase from this year, most of which is expected to go to NuScale Power’s small modular reactor project at the Idaho site. One disappointment for INL officials is funding for the Versatile Test Reactor, which when finished would be the first new test reactor built in the U.S. in decades and would test how fuels, materials and sensors endure when battered with radiation in the form of fast neutrons. The bill would keep funding flat at $65 million, well below Trump’s $295 million request.
The $23.5 billion in emergency spending includes an extra $1.25 billion to build advanced nuclear reactors and improve infrastructure at national laboratories, some of which would go to projects at INL. Democrats have added hundreds of billions of dollars in pandemic relief spending to the House’s appropriations bills, a move Republicans have opposed, saying they weren’t consulted and that it violates a two-year budget deal reached in 2019.
“We’ve ignored that by putting hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars in emergency spending in this bill, all in the name of COVID relief or the economy or something else,” U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, said at a committee hearing earlier this month, according to E&E News.
The bill contains no funding to build a permanent nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, meaning this yearslong impasse will continue. This has been a longtime priority of lawmakers including Simpson and U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., both of whom spoke in favor of the project at last week’s hearing and accused Congress of not doing its job by failing to move forward.
“Continuing and completing the license process is how we will figure out if any of the concerns are scientifically valid,” Simpson said.
Simpson, who is the ranking Republican on the Energy and Water subcommittee, said Republicans are sometimes accused, unfairly in his view, of being anti-science but called the Yucca Mountain dispute an example of Democrats ignoring the science in making a decision.
“We need an authoritative scientific decision, not a political decision, on the safety of Yucca Mountain,” Simpson said. “It is time to stop needlessly delaying this process.”
Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, who is the subcommittee’s chairwoman, highlighted the budget’s $27.5 million for interim storage, which she called “a viable near-term path forward for removing spent fuel from reactor sites.” She said the bill directs DOE to use a “consent-based approach” to finding an interim storage facility.
“We all know major change takes time, and we know that it is difficult to turn this ship, but we are doing it in our time,” she said. “We can and must do better than refight a tired old battle on Yucca Mountain.”
Congress approved creating a permanent repository at the mountain northwest of Las Vegas in 2002, but the project has been held up for years largely due to bipartisan opposition from politicians and other local stakeholders in Nevada.
Final spending levels could still change dramatically even if these appropriations bills pass the House. The Senate hasn’t yet started to go through the same process with its versions of the same spending bills and, Roll Call reported last week, may not do so before the November elections.