Source: | Richard M. Jones| March 27, 2015

“The Chairman and I were seeing little benefit from our participation in ITER” Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said at a hearing on the Department of Energy’s FY 2016 budget request.  Feinstein’s remark was addressed to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, referring to misgivings she and Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) have had about the experimental fusion reactor during last year’s development of the FY 2015 appropriations bill.

ITER and nuclear energy, particularly the disposal of nuclear waste, were two of the topics discussed at this wide-ranging hearing on Wednesday.   DOE’s basic energy research program was given high marks, but as with other appropriations hearings this month, considerable doubt was expressed about the Obama Administration’s overall budget request.  Said Alexander in his opening remarks: “Governing is about setting priorities, and given our current fiscal constraints – especially on non-defense spending – we are going to have to make some tough decisions this year to make sure the highest priorities are funded.  The president’s entire discretionary budget request this year exceeds the Budget Control Act spending caps by about $74 billion. This is not realistic.”

DOE requested an increase of 9.2 percent, or $2,521.4 million from $27,402.4 million to $29,923.8 million in FY 2016.  The Office of Science budget would total $5,339.8 million, an increase of $272.1 million or 5.4 percent.

Alexander, with “an eye toward setting priorities” listed four main areas that his questions would focus on.  The first was “Doubling Basic Energy Research.”  Alexander, a long-time supporter of science explained “Doubling basic energy research is one of the most important things we can do to unleash our free enterprise system to help provide the clean, cheap, reliable energy we need to power our 21st-century economy.”   Citing DOE’s research in the development of unconventional natural gas and Small Modular Reactors, Alexander added “That’s why it’s so important that we work to double the more than $5 billion the U.S. Department of Energy spends on basic energy research. We set out on this goal with America COMPETES, legislation that was first passed under President Bush with overwhelming bipartisan support.”

Discussion of research supported by the Office of Science occurred at the start and end of the two-hour hearing.  The ITER discussion was confined to brief remarks by Feinstein, but signaled that the appropriators’ concerns about the project remain strong. “It’s behind schedule and over budget” she said, commenting that the preliminary cost estimate made in 2005 for the U.S. contribution was $1.122 billion with completion expected by 2013.  That figure has increased to $4.1 billion with completion projected for 2034 and 2035, with one review suggesting the total US contribution to ITER could increase to $6.5 billion with further delays.    Said Feinstein, “I don’t believe that fusion will be developed during my lifetime, and perhaps not the lifetime of the younger members of this [Senate] body.  It’s building a facility in another country that we may never see benefits from.  So I have some question about continuing this, particularly continuing it at the amount that it is budgeted to be.”

Under Secretary for Science and Energy Franklin Orr responded for Moniz.  As was discussed at the March 17 House appropriations hearing Orr acknowledged there have been serious delays and management issues.  The recent appointment, he said,  of a new Director-General should put the project on a new footing if reforms are implemented.   The next steps, Orr explained, were the development of a realistic schedule and budget.  The FY 2016 request of $150 million for ITER is consistent with the amount of funding the project can absorb, said Orr.  The US is committed to providing 9 percent of ITER’s cost.

Feinstein did not appear to change her mind: “Well, it sounds to me that we spent $1.122 billion, [and] just now we are getting a project put together.”  Orr admitted that the early stage design was not mature enough along to provide realistic cost estimates.  “My conclusion, Mr. Chairman [Alexander] is that we ought to take another look at it” said Feinstein.  Alexander did not comment.

At the conclusion of the hearing Alexander asked Moniz about the status of DOE’s exascale computing program.  Moniz described theCORAL joint procurement activity as an important interim step in an overall two to three billion dollar program to achieve exascale computing by 2023.  The challenge, Moniz said, is not just speed but also the management of big data and energy consumption.  Alexander also discussed a second target station at the Spallation Neutron Source.  Moniz said that no date had been set for construction of this project within the Office of Science’s Basic Energy Sciences program.   Alexander also repeated his support for a doubling of basic research funding and asked Moniz for a response.  Moniz explained that basic research was critically important, but underfunded, and that outcomes from a budget doubling would be enormous, making the US a leader in a low carbon future.

Much of the hearing revolved around nuclear energy and was set against a backdrop of several important developments.  The day before the hearing the Obama Administration announced that it will begin the development process for a separate repository for atomic energy defense activity high-level radioactive waste.   Following the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission, DOE will also initiate preliminary work for the development of commercial spent fuel interim storage.  Both will use a consent-based process.  Moniz discussed nuclear energy and its associated waste at a speech on Monday at which he stated “Nuclear energy, we remain convinced, will be a crucial part of that energy portfolio . . . to ensure the viability of the nuclear energy industry over the long term, we simply have to address the issue of nuclear waste disposal.”    During this speech Moniz discussed an important development of anotice of intent to file an application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of a consent-based interim (60-100 years) spent fuel storage site in West Texas by Waste Control Specialists.

Another important development that was referred to was the March 24 introduction of S. 854, the Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2015.  The bill is sponsored by Alexander and Feinstein, as well as Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-WA).  These four senators have leadership control over nuclear energy legislation in the Senate.  Under this bill an independent agency would replace the Department of Energy in managing the nuclear waste program.  This new agency would be directed to construct a pilot storage facility for spent fuel from eight shuttered nuclear power plants.  Consolidated storage facilities would be constructed for other spent nuclear fuel.  A siting process would be established for these facilities and repositories using a community/state/congressional consent-based process.   S. 854 would link the process for the establishment of storage facilities to a parallel repository program.  The bill largely follows the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission.

At Wednesday’s hearing Alexander said he would work with Feinstein to include a pilot program for nuclear waste storage in their FY 2016 funding bill.   Explaining that there is more nuclear waste that can be held at Yucca Mountain, Alexander said more repositories will be necessary.  In reply to a question from Alexander about how realistic the proposal is for the privately-run Texas facility, Moniz said the new dynamic “is extremely interesting,” adding that provisions in future legislation clarifying DOE’s authority would be quite helpful.

In other questions, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) pressed Moniz about the remediation of the Hanford Site, calling budget requests too low.  Moniz replied that there has been considerable progress in cleaning up the site, noting the opening of much of the Columbia River Corridor, adding “I think it is a strong program.”  Murray urged DOE to follow the law and continue the process for the Yucca Mountain repository which she supports.  Murkowski expressed interest in moving S. 854, asking Moniz for DOE’s involvement as the bill progresses.  In reply to other questions, Moniz described his department’s plans to initiate community outreach on a consent-based process for interim waste storage, and later spoke of the “significant potential” of Small Modular Reactors.

At the outset of the hearing Alexander said this was the subcommittee’s final hearing on the DOE request.  The subcommittee will be developing its bill in coming weeks.