Prospects are uncertain in the Senate [Update 07/03/08]
The House Appropriations Committee voted this week to zero out funding in FY2009 for the Department of Energy's ill-fated and much maligned Global Nuclear Energy Program (GNEP). This is a repeat of last year's action by the House which kicked GNEP to the curb only to see some of the cuts restored by Senate action via conference committee.
The immediate impact on the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) next fiscal year (2009) would be a loss of about $57 million which was down $8 million from FY 2008 according to DOE budget documents on the agency's web site. GNEP is a major source of R&D funding for the Idaho lab.
In prior years the Senate has put money back in to reduce the impacts of budget cuts to GNEP by the House. However, that effort was supported by Senate Appropriation Committee member Idaho Senator Larry Craig. Last year he tapped danced his way into political limbo leaving no strong advocate in the Senate for increased appropriations for nuclear programs in Idaho.
Idaho Senator Mike Crapo, who has a solid history of support for INL's nuclear energy R&D programs, does not sit on the Senate Appropriations Committee. However, next week Crapo is bringing Utah Senator Bob Bennett (left) to Idaho for a tour of the lab. Bennett is on the Appropriations committee. The plan is to give Bennett a reason to vote for funding for the lab by letting him get a first hand view of what it does and to meet the people who run it and support it. Bennett will also address business and civic leaders at a lunch meeting in Idaho Falls. Here's what Crapo said about Bennett's upcoming visit.
“With Senator Craig’s retirement, Idaho will lose a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. I have enjoyed a lengthy friendship with my colleague from Utah, Senator Bob Bennett, who is also a member of the Appropriations Committee. We have discussed the regional importance of keeping the INL, our nation’s leading nuclear lab, strong. We both support the need for a long-term commitment to research that is the hallmark of the INL. The timing is right for a visit to the site and to discuss energy issues with Idahoans in Idaho Falls.”
Advanced fuel program found under a fig leaf
However, even if the House was harsh in its judgement, not all is not lost. The House found a convenient fig leaf under which it put back some of the money it flattened in its steam roller rhetoric. The House committee also funded $200 million for demonstrating the GEN IV nuclear reactor technology, an increase of $130 million over the President’s request. Funding for the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative (AFCI) is $120 million, with $90 million funded through the Nuclear Energy Program and $30 million funded in the Office of Science. See additional details from World Nuclear News (below).
Programmatic EIS now a shadow of its former self
At the program level DOE's once massive, and now massively scaled-back, programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS) will likely conclude with the agency punting a decision on future facilities to the next administration. At one time DOE had planned to select by June 2008 three types of GNEP sites (spent fuel reprocessing, fast reactors, and nuclear fuel R&D) from 13 sites in 11 states. Later, after paying for scoping studies for all 13 sites, DOE reduced the site selection process to current federal facilities including Idaho and Savannah River. At this point it looks like no GNEP facilities will be built or started during the Bush administration.
Zeroed out, nada, zip, just plain gone
World Nuclear News reported that overall, the House Appropriations Committee cut the funding for the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) to zero. GNEP is a US-led initiative which aims to develop a closed nuclear fuel cycle, with the aim of enhancing energy security while promoting non-proliferation.
However, the House committee disagreed. In a summary of the committee's markup it wrote,"the initiative to reprocess spent nuclear fuel undermines our nation's nuclear non-proliferation policy." Last year, a panel of the US National Academy of Sciences wrote that the commercial-scale spent fuel reprocessing facilities planned under GNEP were not economically justifiable.
Supporting the bill, Rep. David Hobson R-OH), representing the minority members of the committee, said: "I am pleased that the subcommittee continues its support for nuclear power, with full funding for Yucca Mountain, the requested extension of the authority for nuclear loan guarantees, and a significant increase in research for the next-generation nuclear plant."
He also said that although cutting funding to GNEP the committee was "doing the right thing" by maintaining a modest research program on spent fuel recycling under the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative.
"We have to hedge our bets on a variety of energy sources, but nuclear power will certainly continue to play a major role in our energy portfolio for the foreseeable future."
The debate about nuclear energy and GNEP is likely to get side tracked into a debate about Yucca mountain which the House committee did fund. Democrats used the project to bash republican presidential candidate John McCain over issues related to transportation of spent fuel to the geologic repository.
The endless sea of political controversy is choppy with six foot waves the norm this political season.
Utah Senator Bob Bennett came to Idaho Falls this week delivering a soothing speech to worried business and civic leaders jittery about the future of funding at the Idaho National Laboratory and its payroll of over 6,000 people in nuclear R&D, waste cleanup, and US Navy programs.
With the retirement of Idaho Senator Larry Craig and Pete Domenici from New Mexico, both states will lose seniority on the Senate Appropriations Committee, which oversees the DOE budget. Bennett told a lunch meeting of business and civic leaders on July 2 what they wanted to hear about the future of the INL and its combined payroll of over 6,000 employees. Bennett told Idaho Falls KIDK TV he has been working with Craig and Domenici for the past several years to keep congressional support for the lab, despite some opposition.
"It's a major national interest, not just a local one. It would be tremendously short sided if we were to say, this is the place we need to save money"
The Utah Senator told KIDK's reporter he isn't worried about keeping INL money.
"I have not seen any signs of reluctance to continue funding the national labs, including Idaho," says Bennett.
"I certainly would fight any effort to try to cut back on the funding. Because as I've spent time touring the labs I've come to understand what an enormous and valuable asset they are."
It is a good thing the INL isn't a defense program lab like Lawrence Livermore which has had the stuffing kicked out of it with recent layoffs of 1,800 people including hundreds of tops scientists and engineers.
Can Bennett deliver?
Bennett offered the Idaho Falls audience a bevy of brave words. Time will come when we'll see if his vote had any effect on the lab's funding and its future. He is not a ranking member of the Energy subcommittee on Appropriations and there is every indication the Demcrats will control the Senate following the '08 election. Idaho is unlikely to send a Democrat to Congress to replace Craig.
According to his Senate web site, Bennett's interest in "high tech" issues seems outdated with a reference to Y2K issues for the computer industry. Utah does not have any nuclear power plants though nuclear waste issues have stirred up controversy regarding shipments to a low-level waste site located near Salt Lake City.
The good news in a Senate with 100 members is that every vote has real impact compared to the House with its 435 members. The question is whether Crapo and Bennett can team effectively in the Senate to replace the lost influence of Craig and Domenici once this session is over? A lot is riding on it. Stay tuned.
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