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DOE Budget Priorities Questioned by New House Republican Majority

APR 07, 2023
House appropriators for the Department of Energy previewed their priorities at a hearing on DOE’s budget request for fiscal year 2024, the first since Republicans won control of the House.
Mitch Ambrose headshot
Director of Science Policy News American Institute of Physics

fleischman-granholm-oak-ridge-2021.jpg

Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN), left, on a 2021 visit to Oak Ridge National Lab in his district with Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and Thomas Zacharia, the lab’s director at that time. This year Fleischmann became the top Republican appropriator for the Department of Energy. (Image credit – ORNL)

The House Energy-Water Appropriations Subcommittee held a hearing on March 23 to review the Biden administration’s fiscal year 2024 budget request for the Department of Energy, its first meeting since Republicans won control of the House through the 2022 election. The subcommittee will advance its own spending proposals for DOE sometime this spring that will depart significantly from the request.

House Republicans have not yet revealed what topline spending limits they will propose for the year, but they are expected to seek broad cuts to non-defense budgets to fulfill a deal House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) struck to secure enough votes to lead the chamber. Republican subcommittee members did not indicate at the hearing how they might pare back current DOE programs but offered a sense of their relative priorities.

Subcommittee Chair Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN) argued that the administration is seeking a disproportionately large amount for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) compared to its requests for the Office of Science and the Office of Nuclear Energy. Two Republican members also expressed skepticism about the administration’s proposal to establish a new national lab stewarded by EERE. Despite the tight budget outlook, the hearing showcased bipartisan support for a range of DOE’s programs, including fusion energy, and most subcommittee members were cordial in their questioning of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm.

Nuclear technologies a priority for the subcommittee

Fleischmann opened the hearing by stating he “strongly supports the primary missions [of DOE],” citing work by the Office of Science as an example. Fleischmann represents the district that is home to Oak Ridge National Lab, which is managed by the office and has particularly large footprints in nuclear fission and fusion R&D, isotope production, supercomputing, and neutron science.

Describing the Office of Science as “near and dear to my heart,” Fleischmann said the administration’s proposal to increase the office’s budget by 9% to $8.8 billion “pales in comparison” to its proposal to increase the EERE budget by more than 30% to $3.8 billion. Fleischmann also criticized the administration’s request to cut the Office of Nuclear Energy’s base budget by 12% to $1.6 billion.

“Nuclear energy, a baseload carbon-free source of electricity, will be essential in achieving any climate change goals. So, it is difficult to understand such a large cut, especially as other programs see double and triple-digit increases,” Fleischmann remarked. “A revitalized American nuclear industry also provides an additional energy export of geopolitical consequence, especially for countries seeking alternatives to Russian and Chinese entanglements.”

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID), whose district contains the office’s Idaho National Lab, likewise criticized the cut. Simpson stepped down as the top Republican on the subcommittee at the start of this year but is likely to remain a particularly influential member of the panel.

Granholm explained that the office needs less money in its base budget because its advanced reactor demonstration program is receiving almost $2.5 billion through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021. Simpson pressed her on the subject, noting the office’s budget request for a separate program supporting development of small modular reactors was slashed by almost 90% to $20 million. In response, Granholm stated that the cut reflects a desire to “balance other equities in the budget.”

Justifying the large increase proposed for EERE, Granholm noted the office covers the “widest range of energy sources” among DOE’s offices, supporting programs that span wind, solar, geothermal, and hydropower as well as bioenergy and sustainable transportation technologies. “Each one of these offices [within EERE] is actually underfunded now with respect to the need that is out there,” she argued, noting they received relatively little funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act or the Inflation Reduction Act.

Subcommittee Ranking Member Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) also called for building on the initiatives funded in the two laws. “Now is not the time to take our foot off the pedal,” she said. “We need to make more progress for America by sustaining investment in new energy technologies and advancing world-class research such as hydrogen and fusion and advanced nuclear that unlock our full scientific potential.”

Granholm estimates impacts of potential budget cuts

Alluding to reports that House Republicans might propose to roll back agency budgets to fiscal year 2022 levels, Kaptur invited Granholm to present DOE’s estimate of the resulting impacts, produced in response to a cross-agency request by the top Democrat on the full Appropriations Committee, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT).

Granholm reported that such a rollback could require a reduction of nearly 5,200 scientists, students, and technical staff across universities and the Office of Science’s national labs. Assuming that DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration would also be subject to the cut, Granholm stated that all its major construction projects would be delayed by at least a year.

However, the chair of the full Appropriations Committee, Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX), has stated she does not support cutting defense spending. Fleischmann also indicated at the hearing that among his highest priorities is to secure adequate funding for construction of the Uranium Processing Facility in his district, which NNSA recently estimated will cost at least $2 billion more than previously anticipated to complete.

Shielding NNSA could result in steeper cuts to the rest of DOE, though the final budget amounts will be subject to negotiations with the Democratic-controlled Senate, which is unlikely to support a topline cut to DOE.

Fleischmann registers support for fusion, including ITER

Granholm highlighted how the administration is proposing to increase the nuclear fusion program budget in the Office of Science by 32% to $1 billion , which she described as a “historic investment.”

Most of the new money would go to domestic technology development initiatives in support of the administration’s goal of bringing a pilot fusion power plant online in the U.S. within ten years . Meanwhile, it has proposed to cut the program’s annual contribution to the multinational ITER fusion energy research facility under construction in France by 1% to $240 million.

Fleischmann briefly drew attention to the proposed cut and then stated that he will “continue to support ITER.” He also highlighted that he co-chairs the House’s Fusion Energy Caucus.

Over the past decade ITER has experienced significant cost increases and schedule delays that led Senate appropriators to propose defunding the U.S. contribution to the project, most recently in 2017 . Congressional support for the project has stabilized since then, though the project recently disclosed component manufacturing flaws that could take years to fix . These issues were not mentioned during the hearing.

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Major pieces of ITER are being disassembled to fix flaws discovered in thermal shield segments and vacuum vessel field joints. (Image credit – © ITER Organization)

Turning to NNSA’s fusion program, Fleischmann and Rep. Joe Morelle (D-NY) praised the recent historic fusion yield achieved by the National Ignition Facility, which is primarily a tool for studying weapons-relevant fusion dynamics without resorting to explosive tests.

Morelle noted the Biden administration has requested to pare back NNSA’s fusion program by 5% to $602 million and indicated he would push for a higher budget. Morelle’s district includes the program’s OMEGA Laser Facility, which is hosted by the University of Rochester.

Morelle also asked Granholm to comment on the need to upgrade the ICF program’s main facilities, saying they have not had major infrastructure improvements in decades and have estimated they will need around $650 million over the next five to 10 years in infrastructure sustainment funds.

Granholm replied, “If we want to have, for example, a nuclear stockpile that is safe, secure, and effective, we have to upgrade these facilities. We have to upgrade them for just purely pragmatic reasons because many of them are falling apart, and we have to upgrade them if we want to attract the talent to be able to ensure that we have a workforce capable of the high level of knowledge that’s necessary to be able to sustain modernization activities.”

Republicans skeptical of creating new national lab

The administration has requested $35 million for EERE to begin planning to construct a national lab at a minority-serving educational institution, with the aim of drawing more people from diverse backgrounds into the energy R&D workforce. The idea represents an evolution of the administration’s earlier proposal to create a national lab that would be affiliated with a Historically Black College or University and focus on climate-related research.

Reps. Simpson and Stephanie Bice (R-OK) pressed Granholm to explain how the lab would be distinct from existing STEM workforce diversity efforts, with Simpson asking why EERE’s National Renewable Energy Lab could not accomplish the same sort of outreach and workforce development.

Granholm argued that physically co-locating a national lab with a minority-serving institution would make it more able to attract diverse talent, though she invited ideas on how such a lab should be structured.

“We want to have this discussion, we want to do it right. But we also want to make sure we tap into the talent that’s out there. And right now, we’re missing it,” she said.

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