DOE gives peek at budget highlights

The President's FY19 Budget is on display after arriving on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Monday, Feb. 12, 2018. The U.S. Department of Energy released highlights of the proposed budget, and there’s a variety of news, both good and bad, for Idaho National Laboratory contained in it. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

BOISE — President Donald Trump on Monday released his proposed budget, which contains mixed news for Idaho National Lab and cleanup at the Department of Energy’s desert site west of Idaho Falls.

In a telephonic conference with reporters, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry characterized the proposal as an “American-first budget” that would ensure “energy dominance” and “science dominance” for the country, though he acknowledged that Trump’s budget might be significantly rewritten in the House Appropriations Committee.

The proposed budget follows a set of budget caps negotiated by Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill. But while it fully hits the new defense spending budget cap, it falls about $57 million short of the domestic discretionary budget cap. Domestic discretionary spending funds the majority of federal departments, but it doesn’t include mandatory programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

A budget that fulfills Republican demands for a spending hike while shelving most Democratic priorities is likely to have a tough time in Congress, so a final appropriations deal will likely look much different from the one Trump outlined in his budget, which Perry acknowledged.

Trump’s budget a year ago contained a number of cuts to programs affecting INL, but when Congress was done with it those cuts had either been significantly softened or removed.

“Congress is the real appropriators,” Perry said.

Trump’s budget contains a sharp cut to DOE’s nuclear energy funding, which would drop from $1.1 billion to $757 million, a 31 percent cut. The steepest cuts would come to research on the nuclear fuel cycle, dropping from $204 million to $60 million. INL is the main lab where such research takes place.

Another major cut proposed in Trump’s budget is for INL’s facility management account. That account saw a small cut between fiscal years 2017 and 2018, falling from $313 million to $308 million. But this year’s cut would be much steeper, going to $204 million, cutting roughly a third of funding. That account is used for maintenance and operations at facilities throughout the INL site.

National DOE press officials didn’t respond to emails seeking an explanation for the sharp proposed cuts.

The budget also cuts about $30 million, or roughly 10 percent, from the Idaho Cleanup Project. DOE officials didn’t respond Monday to questions about the reason for the $30 million reduction. With the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit having overcome its prime technical hurdles, it’s possible less investment is needed to get it running. Another matter is the future of the Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Plant, which features a large supercompactor to deal with barrels of transuranic waste.

The finish line for treating that waste is in sight, but there’s significant discussion at the state and federal level about whether the facility can be used to treat transuranic waste from outside the state. National DOE press officials didn’t respond to questions about what the proposed funding level says about the future of AMWTP, home to hundreds of high-paying local jobs.

“The budget request supports Idaho’s top priorities of protecting the Snake River Plain Aquifer, including continuing progress on exhumation of targeted buried waste, treating stored liquid waste, relocation of spent nuclear fuel from wet to dry storage, and completion of the treatment of stored transuranic waste,” DOE-Idaho deputy manager Jack Zimmerman said in a statement.

Other highlights include:

• $432 million for small modular reactors, high-tech batteries and advanced fossil power systems. The first fleet of small modular reactors is planned to be sited at INL, providing power to the city of Idaho Falls and Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, as well as research capacity for INL. Since the local area is the main area for small modular reactor development, this could be a big gain for INL. Of that, $54 million would go specifically for SMR research and development.

• $470 million for energy sector and agency cybersecurity. INL has a large and growing presence in cybersecurity research, including a specific emphasis on cybersecurity for the electrical grid. Of the total, $75 million would be set aside for grid research, and $395 million would be set aside for DOE’s security.

• $1.8 billion for naval reactors. INL is home to the Naval Reactors Facility. This appropriation represents a $369 million increase in overall naval reactor funding.

The budgeting process now moves to Congress, where the House Appropriations Committee and a litany of subcommittees dedicated to specific departments will take over budget writing. Rep. Mike Simpson is chairman of the House Energy and Water Development subcommittee, which writes DOE’s budget.

Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 208-542-6751.