Wednesday, February 3, 2010

2011 DOE nuclear R&D budget

Situation not as dire as predicted, but overall funding level is unchanged

pea under the walnutTwo weeks ago advocates of funding for nuclear energy R&D came unglued when a trade newsletter reported that the budget for this work for 2011 has been slashed to ribbons by OMB. Notices of the death of the nuclear R&D budget, as laid out in a strongly-worded letter from Energy Secretary Chu, might now be seen as premature, but his advocacy must have weighed in the balance.

Someone in the White House had a light bulb go off. The President cannot on one hand call for more nuclear energy in the State of the Union address and then also slash the nuclear program budget at DOE. This is a sure way to undo overtures to the Republicans in favor of nuclear energy whose votes you need for climate change legislation.

However, after watching the walnuts fly to see which one covers the pea, the end result is a modest increase of $37 million of which half is for DOE program management. Despite some name changes, and a realigned focus on longer term R&D programs, the actual funding level and work scope are relatively unchanged from 2010.

The Nuclear Power 2010 program worth $105M is dropped, but it is replaced by a $65M increase for fuel cycle r&d and a catch all title called Nuclear Energy Enabling Technologies for $99M. Gen IV R&D for $220M is eliminated, which sounds dire, but another sweeping activity called Reactor Concepts R&D for $195M shows up in its place. Throw in another couple of cats & dogs in the $3-5M range and the differences are mostly made up.

What it looks like is that OMB kept the basic funding level the same while giving DOE the latitude to re-align some of its R&D priorities to longer-term reactor technology development. That’s probably not a bad idea. The government’s most useful role is to take on the high risk, long-term R&D that industry won’t touch because it doesn’t have a payback within the job term of the current CEO.

blood pressure Also, don’t get too excited about the increase for program management. If it weren’t a line item, the cash would just come out of R&D funds which would mean less money for nuclear energy science.

The budget document with the numbers and top-level program information is on the DOE web site. Check Pg. 45-47 of this file for the nuclear energy budget. The rest of the DOE budget for 2011 is on the agency’s web site. You can slice it and dice it a number of different ways, but the President’s budget is just the starting gun in the race for appropriations. At least with this document, all the horses are at the gate.

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SteveK9 said...

Unfortunately the kind of horse-trading - support for nuclear in return for support for climate change legislation - does not seem to be the GOP plan.

The Republican party has decided that absolute wall-to-wall obstruction is the way to go. Even programs they have supported in the past now receive 0 votes.

It's hard to see how the country is going to move forward given this situation.

crf said...

And the consequence of that strategy is the risk that another non-rabid GOP senator will either switch sides, or vote with the D caucus on energy and climate issues (including the budget).

We'll see.

Robert Steinhaus said...

"What it looks like is that OMB kept the basic funding level the same while giving DOE the latitude to re-align some of its R&D priorities to longer-term reactor technology development. That’s probably not a bad idea."

American taxpayers have not been getting their money’s worth out of their investment in R&D fission reactor energy research as only tiny amounts of the technology developed at the National Laboratories over the last 30 years became commercial deployable technology to help the Country achieve energy independence and self sufficiency.

We need shorter development cycles for R&D fission nuclear reactor R&D development.

Desperately needed fission nuclear research needs to be funded at adequate levels and structured to complete development cycles in shorter amounts of time (ideally 5 years or less). It may be attractive for Laboratory program managers to plan programs that are designed to extend for a decade’s span so as to have in place long term funding to keep Laboratory staff securely employed but recent experience suggests that too often long term programs, like the Integral Fast Reactor, are terminated just a couple of years before their scheduled completion and the taxpayer loses most of the value of the preceding years of research investment. Long development cycles, as we have seen in the 10+ year Argonne/Idaho National Laboratory Integral Fast Reactor project and more recently the GNEP reactor development did not result in any commercially deployable technology. There was not a problem with the technical effort by the National Labs which was excellent. Problems arose because changing political administrations prioritized their R&D needs differently. Having long development cycles runs much greater risks of projects being terminated due to shifting political priorities and the American taxpayer then getting little or nothing out of their investment in promising and beneficial research. In a world of shifting political enthusiasms we need to structure and fund fission energy R&D research so we can complete projects and eventually end up with buildable less waste generating and safer commercial fission power technology. Major reactor design projects should be synchronized with political cycles and ideally setup to complete within the term of the administration that initiated the project.