Alexander: Research at 17 National Laboratories is Nation’s Secret Weapon

Posted on June 21, 2017

WASHINGTON, June 21 — United States Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) today said in a hearing on the president’s fiscal year 2018 budget request for the United States Department of Energy (DOE) that supporting government-sponsored research is one of the most important investments our country can make to encourage innovation, help our free enterprise system create good-paying jobs, and ensure American competitiveness in a global economy.

“The United States produces more than 20 percent of the wealth each year for just about 4 percent of the people in the world…” said Alexander. “The Department of Energy’s research programs have made the United States a world leader in science and technology, and will help the United States maintain its brainpower advantage to remain competitive in a time where other countries are investing heavily in these areas.”

Alexander continued: “We most recently provided record funding levels for the Department of Energy research programs in the FY2017 Omnibus Appropriations bill. That included $5.392 billion for the Office of Science, $306 million for ARPA-E, and $1.02 billion for the Office of Nuclear Energy. Governing is about setting priorities, and the federal debt is not the result of Congress overspending on science and energy research each year.”

“The United States faces a choice between falling further behind competitors like China, or advancing technologies that can make us safer and more competitive. But we have to be fiscally responsible and carefully spend our resources on programs that can achieve results.”

Both basic energy sciences and supercomputing are areas where the United States should remain a leader for future generations. Those are areas critical to our economic competitiveness; diagnosis, treatment, and understanding of cancer and other diseases; as well as securing our energy future through advancing technologies.

Alexander concluded his opening remarks saying that we must solve the 25-year nuclear waste stalemate: “I strongly believe that Yucca Mountain can and should be part of the solution to the nuclear waste stalemate. Federal law designates Yucca Mountain as the nation’s repository for used nuclear fuel, and the Commission’s own scientists have told us that we can safely store nuclear waste there for up to one million years.  But even if we had Yucca Mountain open today, we would still need to look for another permanent repository.  We have more than enough used fuel to fill Yucca Mountain to its legal capacity…”

“But the quickest, and probably the least expensive, way for the federal government to start to meet its used nuclear fuel obligations is for the Department of Energy to contract with a private interim storage facility for used nuclear fuel. The former Secretary of Energy, Secretary Moniz, told this subcommittee last year that the Department of Energy has existing authority to take title to used fuel and contract with a private company to store it.”

Alexander is chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, which oversees the Department of Energy—a federal agency with three critical missions: nuclear security, science and energy, and environmental management.

Chairman Alexander’s remarks as prepared follow:

First, I would like to thank Secretary Perry for being here today.  Secretary Perry was confirmed on March 2nd, and has been able to get into his job very quickly.  He has been secretary for less than four months, but has made it a point to visit many  important  Department of Energy sites and our global partners including:

  • Yucca Mountain;
  • Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico;
  • Idaho National Laboratory;
  • Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee;
  • Italy for the Group of Seven ministers’ meeting;
  • the Clean Energy Ministerial in China; and
  • the Fukushima nuclear complex in Japan, just to name a few. 

And throughout these travels, he and his staff have been available to us in Washington, D.C. whenever we’ve had questions, so I thank the Secretary and welcome him to our hearing

I also want to thank Senator Feinstein, with whom I have the pleasure to work again this year to draft the Energy and Water Appropriations bill. 

I am very pleased with the fiscal year 2017 Energy and Water Appropriations bill, which highlighted my priorities.  That bill provided record levels of funding for the Office of Science, which funds the Department of Energy’s 17 national laboratories; and the Corps of Engineers, which builds our nation’s locks and dams and dredges our ports, and which is a top priority of more than half of the Senators that submit requests to the Subcommittee. 

The bill also supported supercomputing, allowing our national laboratories to maintain five of the ten fastest computers in the world; maintained the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile; and cut wasteful spending within the constraints of the Budget Control Act. 

We’re here today to review the administration’s fiscal year 2018 budget request for the Department of Energy, a federal agency with three critical missions:  nuclear security, science and energy, and environmental management.

The Department of Energy’s budget request for fiscal year 2018 is approximately $28 billion dollars.  This is a decrease of about $2.9 billion below what Congress provided in the fiscal year 2017 Energy and Water Appropriations bill. 

The budget request significantly decreases the investments to federally funded research and development, terminates ARPA-E, and recommends reducing:

  • The Office of Science by a little over $919 million;
  • Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy by $1.45 billion;
  • Nuclear Energy by $310 million; and
  • Office of Electricity by $110 million.

And that is why we are holding this hearing:  to give Secretary Perry an opportunity to discuss the Department’s priorities, so Senator Feinstein and I can make informed decisions as we begin to write the fiscal year 2018 Energy and Water Appropriations bill over the next few weeks. 

Governing is about setting priorities, and given our current fiscal constraints, we are going to have to make some hard decisions this year to make sure the highest priorities are funded. 

For fiscal year 2018, under the Budget Control Act spending caps, Congress has slightly less money to appropriate than last year.  But Senate Republicans have agreed to mark up our appropriations bills to the same overall number that Congress approved in the Omnibus Appropriations bill we passed in May. 

Congress may agree to add funds, and if it does, we will do as we did in 2016 – we will add those amounts to what we’ve already agreed on.  In the meantime, our allocation may be as much as 2 percent lower for non-defense spending, which made up about 47 percent of the Energy and Water Appropriations bill last year.

On the defense side, it is not as clear what our allocation will be, but the president’s budget has proposed about $1 billion more than last year to continue modernizing our nation’s nuclear weapon stockpile. 

Today, I'd like to focus my questions on four main areas, all with an eye toward setting priorities:

  1. Prioritizing federal support for science and energy research;
  2. Ensuring the Department of Energy is spending the money Congress provided last year in the FY2017 Omnibus Appropriations bill the way Congress intended;
  3. Oversight and management for large projects, like MOX and ITER; and
  4. Solving the nuclear waste stalemate.

Prioritizing federal support for science and energy research:

The United States continues to produce more than 20 percent of the wealth each year for just about 4 percent of the people in the world. 

As researchers have told me, it’s hard to think of a major technological advance since World War II that has not involved at least some government-sponsored research.  Most of that research is done at our 17 national laboratories, which are our secret weapon for innovation research that leads to better jobs and higher family incomes in our country. 

Research funding for  Department of Energy laboratories has produced technologies for unconventional natural gas development, supercomputing, 3D printing, nuclear imaging devices used for medical diagnosis, MRI scanners, , optical digital recording technology used to make DVDs, batteries and energy storage systems for cars and trucks  and the electric grid, and , precision detectors, and pharmaceuticals. 

The Department of Energy’s research programs have made the United States a world leader in science and technology, and these programs will help the United States maintain its brainpower advantage to remain competitive at a time when other countries are investing heavily in research.

And that is why we agreed last year to provide record funding levels in a regular appropriations bill for the Department of Energy research programs, which includes $5.392 billion for the Office of Science, $306 million for ARPA-E, and $1.02 billion for the Office of Nuclear Energy.

The federal budget cannot be balanced by cutting discretionary spending, which is only 31 percent of federal spending.

Mandatory spending, which amounts to more than 60 percent of federal spending, is the cause of the nearly $20 trillion federal debt. 

The federal debt is not the result of Congress overspending on science and energy research each year. 

The United States faces a choice between falling further behind competitors like China or advancing technologies that can make us safer and more competitive. 

In fact, in the June 2017 ranking of the world’s most powerful supercomputers, China maintains the top two places, Switzerland is third, and Titan at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is the fastest supercomputer in the United States, moved to fourth.  

In 2018 Oak Ridge National Laboratory will complete “Summit”, which will be more than 5 times faster than Titan and will help researchers better understand materials and nuclear power, and support more energy breakthroughs.

I’m pleased to see that the Department’s budget request  prioritizes supercomputing, and includes $508 million to deliver the first exascale machine by 2021.

Ensuring the Department of Energy is spending the money Congress provided in the FY2017 Omnibus the way it was intended

Many are concerned that the Department is delaying funding announcements based on objections to climate change and clean energy research.

The truth is increased research in clean energy is important to dealing with climate change, but that is only one reason we do it.  It is also important to lowering the cost of electricity, which raises family incomes and spurs economic growth.

In fact, when we did Rising Above the Gathering Storm in 2005, the Committee considered making it all about energy.

I will be asking you questions about ARPA-E, Advanced Manufacturing, and Biological and Environmental Research.

I will need your assurance that you will continue to fund projects consistent with congressional intent in the FY2017 Omnibus Appropriations bill.

I would also like to hear what your priorities are for an FY2018 Energy and Water Appropriations bill that will provide you more, not less money, than the Department’s budget requests. 

Ensuring effective oversight of large construction projects

Over the past five years, Senator Feinstein and I have worked hard with the Department to keep costs under control and to make sure hard-earned taxpayer dollars are spent wisely. We need to make sure these projects are on time and on budget.

Senator Feinstein and I have focused much of our oversight on the Uranium Processing Facility in Tennessee, and as I said at the NNSA budget hearing last week, I am glad to hear the Department continues to follow the Red Team’s recommendations.

Last week, General Klotz confirmed the project is still on time and on budget, with a target of completion in 2025 at a cost of $6.5 billion, and the designs of the nuclear facilities will be 90% complete later this year.

Your budget request also proposes shutting down the MOX fuel facility in South Carolina and replacing it with an alternative, called Dilute and Disposal.  We have talked about this project many times.

At a budget hearing last week, General Klotz told us the cost to build the MOX facility will be $17 billion, including $12 billion still to go, compared to $500 million needed for the Dilute and Dispose option.  He also told us the MOX process would cost $800 million to $1 billion per year to operate compared to under $400 million for Dilute and Disposal.  Today, I hope to hear your view of these costs, and I want to make sure you have a clear plan for getting plutonium out of South Carolina as the Department has committed to do.

I also look forward to learning more about your views on the future of U.S. participation in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project known as “ITER”.  Your budget includes a recommendation for the reduction of funding, as well as concerns about the cost and schedule for ITER.

Senator Feinstein and I have found it difficult to use limited discretionary dollars for the ITER project at the expense of other domestic Office of Science priorities such as supercomputing and ARPA-E. 

Solving the Nuclear Waste Stalemate

To ensure that nuclear power has a strong future in this country, we must solve the 25-year-old stalemate over what to do with used fuel from our nuclear reactors. 

To solve the stalemate, we need to find places to build geologic repositories and temporary storage facilities so the federal government can finally meet its legal obligation to dispose of nuclear waste safely and permanently.

This year’s budget request for the Department of Energy includes $110 million to restart work for Yucca Mountain repository and $10 million to study ways to open an interim storage site or use a private interim storage site.

I strongly believe that Yucca Mountain can and should be part of the solution to the nuclear waste stalemate. Federal law designates Yucca Mountain as the nation’s repository for used nuclear fuel, and the Commission’s own scientists have told us that we can safely store nuclear waste there for up to one million years.   

But even if we had Yucca Mountain open today, we would still need to look for another permanent repository.  We have more than enough used fuel to fill Yucca Mountain to its legal capacity. 

So Senator Feinstein and I, along with the leaders of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Senator Murkowski and then Senators Bingaman, Wyden, and now Senator Cantwell, have a bill to implement the recommendations of the President’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, which we’re working to reintroduce this year.

The legislation complements Yucca Mountain, and would create a new federal agency to find additional permanent repositories and temporary facilities for used nuclear fuel. 

But the quickest, and probably the least expensive, way for the federal government to start to meet its used nuclear fuel obligations is for the Department of Energy to contract with a private storage facility for used nuclear fuel.  

The former Secretary of Energy, Secretary Moniz, told this subcommittee last year that the Department of Energy has existing authority to take title to used fuel and contract with a private company to store it.  

I understand that two private companies have submitted applications to the NRC for consolidated storage facilities, one in Texas and one in New Mexico. I’ll be asking some questions about this today.

I look forward to working with Secretary Perry as we begin putting together our Energy and Water Appropriations bill for fiscal year 2018, and also with Senator Feinstein, who I will now recognize for her opening statement.

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