Energy Secretary Rick Perry disputed whether Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland is at risk of losing 1,000 jobs under the administration’s budget proposal during a House subcommittee hearing Tuesday.
“I am comfortable that we will manage these labs in a way that continues to keep the employment levels at the level to deliver the innovation and the technology that this country is going to need,” Perry said under questioning by Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., at a hearing of the House Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee.
Perry addressed several topics of Mid-Columbia interest under questioning from Northwest lawmakers— Hanford, the Department of Energy national lab in Richland, the Bonneville Power Administration, and the proposed Yucca Mountain repository for nuclear waste and used fuel.
The administration of President Donald Trump has proposed a fiscal 2018 budget for the Department of Energy that would cut spending for energy programs by $3.5 billion, reflecting the administration’s decision to focus resources on early-stage research, said Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, chairman of the subcommittee.
It’s a reduction that the Appropriations Committee must carefully review to understand the impacts to important activities and programs, Simpson said.
I hope I can give you some good comfort from a management standpoint that we are going to do everything that we can to keep labs functioning at the level at which the American citizens need and deserve.
Energy Secretary Rick Perry
Newhouse pointed out that PNNL stands to lose almost $200 million under the administration’s DOE budget proposal, translating to 1,000 jobs.
How would DOE’s strong and vibrant programs and the nation’s position as a world leader in science and technology be maintained, Newhouse asked.
The estimate of 1,000 jobs does not take into account management of funds, including using year-end extended balances, Perry said. “It’s a very cold look,” he said.
“I hope I can give you some good comfort from a management standpoint that we are going to do everything that we can to keep labs functioning at the level at which the American citizens need and deserve,” Perry said.
But he also told Newhouse in a round of follow-up questions that “not every project is going to get funded.”
Newhouse had asked about a program in which PNNL, Washington State University and the University of Washington are collaborating to test energy savings technologies, using their campuses as test beds. He wanted to know how the benefits of the program would be realized under the current budget proposal.
Priorities must be set and projects considered to make sure they are worthy of moving forward, Perry said.
Both Newhouse and Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Republican representing a district on the Columbia River downstream from Hanford, had questions about the nuclear reservation.
Perry said he looks forward to visiting Hanford, possibly before the end of summer, but in the meantime has received extensive briefings on the environmental cleanup work there.
The partial collapse of a tunnel storing highly radioactive waste in May, leading to an emergency order for more than 3,000 workers to take cover, highlights the importance of getting cleanup done, Herrera Beutler said.
(The Hanford tunnel collapse) kind of came out of left field.
Energy Secretary Rick Perry
“This wasn’t something this community did on its own,” but a federal government wartime project, she said. Hanford produced plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program during World War II and the Cold War.
The nation is committed to cleanup of Hanford, Perry said.
He pointed out progress being made, including to tear down the Plutonium Finishing Plant to slab on grade by the end of September and to prepare to move radioactive sludge out of underwater storage 300 yards from the Columbia River.
The partial tunnel collapse “kind of came out of left field,” Perry said. But the response to the emergency was professional and no individual was harmed, he said.
Newhouse raised concerns about future payments in lieu of taxes to local governments that would collect taxes if the 580-square-mile nuclear reservation were not in private hands, and whether the payments would be reduced or eliminated. The annual payment can be close to $10 million.
Perry, who became energy secretary after the budget proposal was partially crafted, said he would have to look into the issue and get back to Newhouse.
The administration’s budget proposal recommends selling off most of the transmission assets of the Bonneville Power Administration, including those that serve much of the Mid-Columbia. Concerns have been raised about whether private companies would adequately serve less profitable rural areas.
The budget proposal makes some difficult decisions.
Energy Secretary Rick Perry
Herrera Beutler told Perry that BPA is self-financing has paid in excess of $32 billion to the federal treasury by selling power.
The proposal is “an interesting idea that has been discussed many times before,” Perry said. “You make some very strong arguments.”
The proposed administration budget makes some difficult decisions, he said.
Among the “hard conversations” the nation needs to have is what to do about its nuclear waste, Perry said.
The administration’s budget requests $120 million to resume licensing activities for the Yucca Mountain, Nev., proposed repository for used commercial nuclear fuel and defense nuclear waste, including used fuel and high level radioactive waste treated for disposal at the Hanford vitrification plant, Perry said. The money also would be used to advance creating storage until a repository is ready for the waste.
He said possible sites for interim storage might include the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, a site run by Waste Control Specialists in Texas or the Nevada Test Site, he said.
Perry reiterated his interest in small modular nuclear reactors.
Continued support for the reactors, which could be produced in modules and then shipped to where they would be used, could bring back America’s preeminent role as leaders in technology and innovation in nuclear energy, he said.