The Department of Energy appears to be planning to slow work at part of the Hanford vitrification plant, said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., this week.
She based her comment on the fiscal 2019 budget for the Department of Energy proposed by the administration of President Donald Trump, as congressional hearings on it began this week.
Energy Secretary Rick Perry appeared before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development and the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and answered questions on budget cuts proposed for Hanford and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory programs and changes that likely would increase Northwest electric rates.
Bonneville Power Administration
Some of the strongest words at the Senate and House hearings were from Northwest lawmakers opposed to the DOE proposal to sell off the transmission assets of the BPA and shift from cost-based rates to market-based rates.
Most Tri-City residents rely on electricity their utilities purchase primarily from the BPA.
"It is the one idea — bad idea — that unites all of us in the Northwest," said Greg Walden, R-Ore., chairman of theHouse Energy and Commerce Committee. "I'm afraid this move could do nothing but harm my constituents, drive up electricity costs, and hurt consumers across the region."
Murray agreed, and said the transmission lines "absolutely cannot be privatized."
"It's the most horrific idea we have heard in the Northwest, ever," said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore..
"You will find the Northwest legislators will lay down on the tracks to make sure that we don't sell off the ability to have reasonable, renewable power," he said.
Perry was asked if those who purchase the transmission lines would be allowed to set the price for distributing electricity. BPA now controls about 75 percent of the high-voltage transmission capacity in the region.
"It's a good conversation to hold," Perry said.
But he also said told lawmakers he heard their message loud and clear at both congressional hearings.
DOE would like to have the Hanford vitrification plant ready to start turning the nuclear reservation's low activity radioactive waste into a stable glass form as soon as December 2021, Perry has said. That is two years ahead of a court-enforced deadline to be treating low activity waste.
"I appreciate your efforts to accelerate that work, but it's become abundantly clear that reaching that court-mandated deadline sooner comes at the expense of the rest of the Waste Treatment Plant," Murray said.
Construction stopped in 2012 on parts of the plant that will handle high level radioactive waste while technical issues were resolved.
With technical issues close to being resolved "now is not the time to take our foot off the gas," Murray said.
But the administration's proposed budget requests money only for management of design and procurement documents for two key facilities, both with substantial construction yet to be completed, she said.
It appears to put them into preservation mode, she said.
Will the proposed budget allow for any work beyond maintaining the existing structure of the plant's High Level Waste and Pretreatment Facilities? she asked.
DOE's focus has been on getting the plant ready to treat low activity waste, Perry said. Study continues on how to get other parts of the plant on line, he said.
Murray said she will not be supporting any proposals on Hanford waste treatment until DOE provides a thorough review to Congress, the state of Washington and the Tri-Cities.
The proposed Hanford budget would cut spending by $326 million in fiscal 2019, Murray's staff said.
In the House, Walden said the committee has been working with the Government Accountability Office to identify options for improving operational performance at Hanford.
After the hearing, Walden said in a statement that the committee is beginning to see some progress at Hanford. It will continue to monitor projects, particularly when involving worker safety.
Pacific Northwest National Lab
Proposed cuts to scientific research in the administration's fiscal 2019 budget proposal would cause the DOE national labs to lay off thousands of scientists and engineers, Murray said.
"That loss in knowledge and experience would be just staggering," she said, pointing out that Perry has referred to the national labs as "crown jewels."
The proposal includes cuts to a program that includes energy efficiency and renewable energy research, which would have a substantial affect on PNNL, she said.
Perry countered that research money had been shifted, including to cyber security work and to early stage rather than more mature research.
Murray said the fact remained that the budget proposal "would have a severe impact to our national labs."
She thanked the Senate Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee for its work on the current fiscal budget that boosted research spending well above the administration's request.