Nuclear energy programmes fared well in the Department of Energy’s (DoE’s) $23.4 billion fiscal year 2006 (FY ’06) budget request to Congress. While the DoE’s overall proposed budget request was down 2% compared to the FY ’05 appropriation, the nuclear energy portion of the budget rose 5.2%, and the fusion energy sciences programme rose 6.1%.

The DoE also asked for a moderate increase in funds for work on a spent nuclear fuel repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, but proposed a decrease in funds to clean up is own old nuclear weapons production sites.

Recently confirmed energy secretary Samuel Bodman unveiled the proposed budget in a 7 February briefing in Washington, DC, that aroused widespread criticism for its lack of detail and for the DoE’s decision – in contrast to past years – to bar the press from follow-on programmatic ‘breakout sessions’ where top officials discussed funding proposals for individual programmes.

Nuclear energy, science and technology programmes increased $25.1 million compared to the FY ’05 appropriation. Key components of the increase include:

  • The Nuclear Power 2010 programme increased to $56 million (compared to $49.6 million in FY ’05) to reflect continued implementation of two new nuclear plant demonstration projects awarded in FY ’05 (NuStart and Dominion).
  • The Generation IV advanced reactor effort increased to $45 million (compared to $39.7 million in FY ’05) to reflect expanded research and development work.
  • The advanced fuel cycle initiative increased to $70 million (compared to $67.5 million in FY ’05). The initiative, which the DoE regards as an integral part of the Generation IV programme, seeks to develop a more efficient, proliferation-resistant fuel cycle.
  • The nuclear hydrogen initiative increased to $20 million (compared to $9 million in FY ’05) to fund additional research on co-production of hydrogen using advanced reactors.

The DoE requested $290.6 million for fusion energy sciences, compared to $273.9 million in FY ’05. Of this amount, $56 million is earmarked for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (Iter) programme: $6 million would go to Iter preparations; $3.5 million would go to Iter-related research; and $46 million would be reserved for Iter hardware on the assumption that Iter construction will begin in FY ’06.

Because the DoE’s total fusion budget increase is $16.9 million, and the Iter-related increase is $51 million (only $5 million was appropriated for Iter work in 2005), the DoE compensated by slashing money from almost every major domestic fusion effort, to the tune of $34 million. Cuts included reduced operating times on Doublet III-D and Alcator C-MOD, shutdown of NSTX operations, elimination of the fusion materials research programme, halving the heavy ion inertial fusion energy programme, and sharp reductions in non-tokamak (alternate concept) research.

The DoE is seeking $651.4 million for the Yucca Mountain repository effort. The request is divided between the two funds that support the programme: $300 million from the civilian nuclear waste fund, supported by fees levied on the owners and generators of civilian spent nuclear fuel; and $351.4 million from the defence nuclear waste disposal appropriation, which supports disposal of spent fuel and high-level waste from the nuclear weapons programme.

While the DoE’s request is 13.8% above the amount appropriated in FY ’05 ($572 million), it is less than half the amount the DoE predicted a year ago that it would seek for FY ’06.

This funding level should be sufficient to allow DoE to complete and deliver a 45-volume licence application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) by the “end of calendar year 2005,” said associate deputy secretary Bruce Carnes.

The DoE also intends to again propose moving the nuclear waste fund appropriation out of the main federal budget for the FY ’07 budget cycle, Carnes said, but noted that the FY ’06 request is part of the department’s regular budget request.

Margaret Chu, recently-resigned director of the DoE’s Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM), told the 7 February budget briefing that the operating date for a future repository – a complex, expensive, first-of-a-kind project – was “intimately tied to future funding levels.” After the briefing, she suggested to a group of reporters that the facility could start operating by 2012.

The DoE understands from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that EPA could reissue the long-term compliance rule, voided by the US Court of Appeals in July 2004, in draft form by spring of 2005, and the final rule by the end of the calendar year, Chu said. This would parallel the DoE’s planned licence application, she said. By law, the EPA rule must form the basis of the NRC’s repository licensing rule.

At $6.5 billion, the DoE’s request for cleaning up its highly contaminated nuclear weapons sites was down 7.8% from last year’s appropriation of $7.1 billion. The biggest cut in the environmental management budget came at the Hanford Site in state of Washington, where the DoE is seeking $1.8 billion, $267 million less than the FY ’05 appropriation.

The department’s budget request has been sent to Congress, which will hold detailed hearings on various portions of the budget request over the coming weeks.

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