State Politics

Report: Trump suggests steep cuts for nuclear, possibly affecting Idaho National Lab

This undated photo courtesy of the Idaho National Laboratory shows the Advanced Test Reactor, a research reactor, near Idaho Falls.
This undated photo courtesy of the Idaho National Laboratory shows the Advanced Test Reactor, a research reactor, near Idaho Falls.

President Donald Trump’s proposed budget reportedly includes sharp cuts for nuclear energy research, as well as other types of energy research.

The cuts drew a letter of opposition from six Republican senators, many from states with national laboratories, but neither of Idaho’s senators are signatories.

Online news service Axios Media, a recent startup formed by former Politico reporters and editors, reported Wednesday that it had seen a draft copy of Trump’s proposed 2018 budget for the Department of Energy. Axios reports that the draft slashes nuclear energy funding from $1.1 billion to $703 million, a 31 percent reduction.

Former Idaho National Laboratory Director John Grossenbacher said if the reported numbers were to be enacted, it would mean tough choices at the lab.

“Any reduction below $1 billion and we’re squeezing the system,” Grossenbacher said.

Grossenbacher said before the nuclear energy budget hit $1 billion, important research often went unfunded as the nation’s various labs competed over scarce resources. The competition didn’t mean the cream rose to the top, but instead important research had to be shelved.

“A billion dollars is the tipping point where the whole system comes into balance,” he said.

On Thursday, six Republican senators signed a letter to Trump urging against energy research and development cuts. Included among the signatories were Sen. Lamar Alexander, of Tennessee (home of Oak Ridge National Laboratory), Sen. Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina (Savannah River National Laboratory), and Sen. Cory Gardner, of Colorado (National Renewable Energy Laboratory).

Neither Sen. Jim Risch nor Sen. Mike Crapo signed the letter. In a joint statement to the Post Register, the senators’ offices said the letter was irrelevant to INL.

“This particular letter details efforts at the Sandia Lab and natural gas research, neither of which are relevant to the INL,” they said. “Both Senators Crapo and Risch know the value of the research being conducted at INL.”

The letter to Trump makes reference to how research at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., helped to fuel the boom in natural gas, using that as an example of how federally-funded research benefits the national interest. It urges Trump to follow the example set in a recent stopgap spending bill, signed by Trump earlier this month, and to maintain current levels of energy research and development funding broadly.

“We cannot lose the technological advances we have gained through our country’s investment in research and development,” the letter states. “Governing is about setting priorities, and the federal debt is not the result of Congress overspending on science and energy research each year. We urge you to continue to invest in the Department of Energy’s research and development programs in fiscal year 2018.”

From left, U.S. Reps. Raul Labrador and Mike Simpson, and Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo, joke during a February 2014 press conference at The Riverside Hotel in Garden City. Katherine Jones

Rep. Mike Simpson was critical of Risch and Crapo’s opposition to the omnibus bill in an interview with the Twin Falls Times-News, implying that they had taken easy votes rather than supporting key state interests such as INL.

“There’s an old saying in Congress, you never get in trouble for voting ‘no’ on a bill that passes,” Simpson told the paper. “You can come home to Idaho and say, ‘I’m a conservative, I voted against the spending bills.’”

Simpson indicated that Risch’s and Crapo’s “no” votes made it harder for him to negotiate budgets that will be favorable to the state.

“Needless to say I’m a little frustrated,” he said.

Risch and Crapo said in the statement that they would work to direct funding toward INL once Trump presents his budget.

“The president is scheduled to send his proposed budget to Congress next week and once received, both Senators will work to direct funding toward INL’s mission and research,” their offices said.

In followup they added, “We are continuing what we have always done — work with the Lab’s leadership and the Senate appropriators. And we appreciate the Secretary’s (Secretary of Energy Rick Perry) recent visit.”

Josh Freed is vice president for clean energy at Third Way, a centrist think tank that supports nuclear and clean energy research.

“Certainly, INL has been one of the nation’s leading institutions in that effort,” Freed said. “We’re deeply concerned that, if enacted, that the proposed budget would negatively impact both the lab’s nuclear mission and its renewable energy work.”

Freed said INL’s research had led to “huge innovations in thinking about hybrid energy systems” and to preservation and expansion of the nuclear fleet.

“We’re not going to get those kinds of innovations in the United States if we find labs planning to reduce staff and research instead of scaling up,” Freed said.

Freed added that the private sector would not step in to fill such gaps. Energy research is too expensive and too uncertain for companies to do it on their own, he said.

“It’s surrendering an entire section of our economy to our international competitors,” he said.