One of Congress’s primary responsibilities is to make the decisions necessary to fund the federal government. But Congress hasn’t even been able to agree on a budget for the past three years and instead has enacted a series of short-term budget fixes. So it was good news that the Senate and House passed an omnibus funding bill for the entire federal government for the rest of Fiscal Year 2014, which runs through September 30. The president signed the bill into law on January 17.
We’re still teasing out some of the details, but here are a few highlights of funding for the Department of Energy and the Idaho National Laboratory.
Support for INL comes through two primary budget lines: Defense Environmental Cleanup and Nuclear Energy. The 2014 total cleanup funding of $5 billion for the entire DOE is slightly lower than the 2013 level. Far and away the largest expenditures are at Hanford (WA) and the Savannah River Site (SC); INL ranks third. Cleanup funding in Idaho has declined from a $517-million peak in 2008. Some of the decline is because of budget constraints, some because progress in the cleanup program has shortened, though by no means eliminated, the to-do list. It will have to rise substantially in the coming years as treatment of INL’s high-level waste calcine left over from reprocessing begins. But in the meantime, the Site’s funding seems to have stabilized at $387 million, virtually identical to what finally came through in 2012 but about $20 million more than the Administration had asked for this year. Stable funding will allow the Site to continue to dig up plutonium-contaminated waste and, it is hoped, operate the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit, which will solidify the last of INL’s liquid high-level waste. The IWTU has been extensively modified after a botched startup in June 2012 and is going through final pre-startup tests now.
The Nuclear Energy portion of the DOE budget is much more difficult to track. It’s hard to link a particular expenditure (building a facility like the IWTU) to a particular outcome (liquid waste removed from buried tanks). And though INL claims “nuclear energy lead laboratory” status, a substantial proportion of federal nuclear energy research actually goes forward at other national labs, universities, trade groups, and corporations across the country.
At any rate, the total Nuclear Energy budget has gone from $858 million in 2012 to $759 million in 2013 to $889 million in the 2014 Omnibus bill. That’s a bit of a roller coaster from deep cut to sharp spike. The jump between the last two years might make it look as if Congress is giving the future of nuclear power a strong vote of confidence. But look again. Of the $130 million apparent increase from last year, $94 million is simply a shift of the costs of INL’s safeguards and security from a different budget line into the Nuclear Energy budget column.
The rest of the total increase comes in the small modular reactor (SMR) program. Remember, NuScale, a young company from Corvallis, OR, has said it might build a small modular reactor at INL. But construction is a long way down the road. The current increase is to support design and licensing efforts for SMRs, which Congress committed to do a few years ago. NuScale is only eligible for less than a quarter of the new money.
Notably, the Senate version of the 2014 funding bill included a section instructing the Department of Energy to proceed with consolidated storage of commercial spent nuclear fuel. The House did not address the subject, and the final Omnibus bill sent to the President didn’t either.
Last week, Congressman Mike Simpson observed that the way to maintain a taxpayer-funded program is to be certain it has a “big footprint” and mentioned, as contrast, some of the Nuclear Energy projects that have come and gone. For a good while now, the cleanup program at INL has had just that: a real impact right here where the money is spent.