US budget proposals cause controversy

15 February 2018

Although US President Donald Trump’s draft 2019 budget proposes $30.6bn for the Department of Energy (DOE), a 2% increase from the fiscal year 2017, a significant portion of the funds are for oversight of the nuclear weapons stockpile at the expense of other areas, in particular, renewable energy research. However, many of the proposals have already proved controversial, and the final version will undoubtedly differ from the draft after the House and Senate budget committees have amended it. The budget proposal will then be discussed and voted on by both chambers before any agreed appropriation bills based on it are signed into law by the president.

The draft budget proposal requests $30.6bn for the DOE “to advance US national security and economic growth through transformative science and technology innovation that promotes affordable and reliable energy through market solutions and meets our nuclear security and environmental cleanup challenges”. This includes $15,091m for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA); $5,391m for Science; $2,515m for Energy; $6,601 for Environmental Management; $853m for Other Defense Activities; $293 for Administration and Oversight; and -$137 in Savings and Receipts. Highlights include:

  • $15.1bn to modernise and restore nuclear security in line with the Nuclear Posture Review and National Security Strategy;
  • $5.4bn for cutting-edge, early-stage scientific research and development (R&D) and to build state-of-the-art scientific tools and facilities “to keep US researchers at the forefront of scientific innovation”; 
  • $2.5bn “to promote America’s energy dominance through technologies that will make our energy supply more affordable, reliable, and efficient;
  • $6.6bn for cleaning up the Cold War nuclear legacy.

Also, more than $2bn is to be invested in various aspects of cyber security and computing. Some $432m has been allocated for “specific, cutting-edge, early-stage R&D efforts in energy storage solutions beyond batteries, advanced fossil-based power systems, and advanced reactor technologies including Small Modular Reactors to promote American energy dominance.” A total of $11bn is designate to continue refurbishment of the nuclear weapon stockpile.  

The budget request for the NNSA includes $220m “to continue the orderly and safe closure of the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility and $59m to pursue the proven dilute and dispose technology. Some $5.4bn is requested for the Office of Science (the same as FY 2017) “to focus on its core mission of conducting cutting-edge, early-stage research”.  

The request of $2.5bn for energy and related programmes ($1.9bn less than FY 2017) prioritises early-stage R&D at the National Laboratories. It includes $696m for energy efficiency and renewable energy; $502 for fossil energy research and development; $757m for nuclear energy; $195m for petroleum reserves as well as $120m for Yucca Mountain and interim storage.  

The $757m in funding for nuclear energy ($259m less than FY 2017) “to revive and expand the US nuclear energy sector through early-stage R&D, prioritising support for advanced manufacturing methods, instrumentation, and reactor technologies, including $54m for advanced SMR research and development. 

The funding for Yucca Mountain and interim storage demonstrates the “commitment to nuclear waste management by restarting Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licensing activities for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository” and establishing a robust interim storage programme for earlier acceptance of spent fuel.

The $6.6bn request for Environmental Management ($182m more than FY 2017) covers continued cleanup resulting from five decades of nuclear weapons development and government-sponsored nuclear energy research. Highlights include: 
•    $1.7bn ($287m above FY 2017) to support the Savannah River Site for the Liquid Tank Waste Management Program, including a significant increase in the production at the Defense Waste Processing Facility and startup of the Salt Waste Processing Facility;
•    $1.4bn, ($61m less than FY 2017)  for the Office of River Protection, to continue cleanup activities at Hanford. This covers  ongoing construction, startup and commissioning activities at the Waste Treatment Plant supporting the direct feed of low-activity waste for immobilisation by December 2023; 
•    $747m  ($169m below FY 2017) for Richland cleanup at Hanford; 
•    $415m ($33m above FY 2017) for the decontamination and decommissioning project and cleanup at the Portsmouth Site; 
•    $409m ($90m less than FY 2017) for cleanup activities at the Oak Ridge site, including continued deactivation and demolition at the East Tennessee Technology Park; 
•    $403m ($79m above FY 2017) to safely continue waste emplacement at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), including $85m for ventilation system and utility shaft projects to increase underground airflow for simultaneous mining and waste emplacement operations; 
•    $359m ($31m less than FY 2017) to continue cleanup at the Idaho site, including the commissioning and startup of the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit and operating the Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project; 
•    $270m ($2m less than FY 2017) for the Paducah site to continue ongoing cleanup activities; and
•    $150m to deactivate and decommission specific high-risk excess contaminated facilities at Y-12 National Security Complex and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory not currently in the programme’s inventory.

Three concerns

While the proposed budget favours fossil fuels and nuclear weapons development to the detriment of renewable energy and environmental programmes, three issues have stirred particular controversy  – final cancellation of the MOX fuel fabrication plant,   funding cuts for the Hanford clean-up programmes, and revival of the Yucca Mountain waste management programme. 

The MOX plant under construction at the Savannah River Site facility was intended to recycle weapons-grade plutonium into commercial reactor fuel. The project was based on a 2000 non-proliferation agreement between the USA and Russia both of which agreed to remove 34 metric tons of plutonium from their arsenal using MOX technology.  In late 2016, after the NNSA disclosed that the Obama Administration wanted to cancel the project, Russia suspended the agreement. 

The DOE request for 2019 is for funding to close the facility in favour of the “dilute and dispose” method. Construction began in 2007 and was originally estimated to cost $4bn. However, it is still only 70% complete, with $12bn needed to finish it. Lindsey Geisler, NNSA press secretary, said the project “is simply unaffordable”.  Last year’s budget continued the cancellation policy, but the Senate reinstated $340m to continue construction. Local, state and national leaders, say the facility is viable and should be completed.  US Senator Lindsey Graham has said he will continue to fight for the plant. 

The proposed $230m cut to the Hanford cleanup budget is being described as dangerous ($61m from the budget for Hanford’s Office of River Protection, and $169m from the DOE’s Richland Operations Office). The nuclear reservation in southeast Washington is dealing with a series of problems. Demolition of the Plutonium Finishing Plant is more than a year behind schedule and officials are struggling to keep radioactive waste from spreading. Also a tunnel collapsed at the Purex plant last spring. Officials monitoring the cleanup say the recent emergencies have diverted money away from an already stretched budget. Local senators have said they are confident Congress will not allow the budget cuts to stand.

The proposal to restart licensing activities for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository has also generated opposition. The Yucca Mountain site has been investigated since the 1970s as a repository for nuclear waste. Some $15bn was spent on the project, but it was never opened because of legal challenges from local politicians, environmentalists and Native American groups. In 2010, President Barack Obama withdrew the site’s licence in the face of opposition from then-Senate majority leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada. 

Energy Secretary Rick Perry said the new budget request “supports the department’s effort to enhance today’s energy security while also making strategic investments for tomorrow”.  However,  Democrats and Republicans from Nevada are joining forces to prevent re-licensing the facility. Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval says the state "will leave no stone unturned in fighting" attempts to revive the Yucca Mountain project.


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