FYI: The AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News

Energy Secretary Chu Appears Before Senate Appropriators

Richard M. Jones
Number 45 - March 26, 2012  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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Energy Secretary Steven Chu appeared before the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee on March 14.  Appropriators were generally receptive to the FY 2013 request for the Department of Energy, and in many cases spoke of their desire to see it play a more active role in several areas.

Of interest to the physics community are the opening remarks of the subcommittee chair and two important exchanges regarding the Fusion Energy Sciences program and the status of the Homestake Mine in South Dakota.  In her opening remarks, subcommittee Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) stated:

“So the department is making clear its priorities there. However, in the non-priority subprograms, it's more difficult to understand the administration's position because the department has failed to prioritize activities within the very limited funding.

One example is Fusion Energy Science. The overall Fusion Energy Science's budget is not large enough to accommodate our commitment to the ITER project in France, while at the same time maintaining our domestic program.  The difficult decision was apparently made to cut funding to the fusion facility at MIT. The budget though fails to fully fund the commitment to ITER. This will likely increase our total contribution to ITER in the future and delay the project.  I understand the decision not to prioritize Fusion Energy Sciences in the tight budget environment. But if we're making that decision, then we need to follow through and make the actual tough decisions within the program itself and not leave them floundering around.  It now appears that we're simply going to cripple both our domestic and international efforts.”

In Feinstein’s first round of questions she asked the following question about fusion funding:

“Let's go to fusion and ITER. And $150 million this year with the United States contribution to ITER subject to grow to $300 million. Now, this is going to take money away from domestic fusion programs that we're already concerned at NIF and also other scientific priorities such as materials and biology research.  Here's the question. Should the United States consider withdrawing from ITER or at least reducing the United States contribution? And if we continue to fund it, where would the $300 million come from?

Secretary Chu replied:

“Senator, you're asking a very important question that we asked ourselves. But first let me assure you that the program at NIF [National Ignition Facility] is not actually competing with ITER. And NIF is supported by the NNSA [National Nuclear Security Administration] budget. And we want to make sure that that new program goes forward.  Now, ITER is international science collaboration. It - in the view of the fusion community - represents the most advanced, best chance we have of trying to control plasmas in a way that it can potentially . . . bring about controlled fusion for power generation.  And it is an international cooperation. And we I think want this to go forward. We want to be seen as reliable international partners. But we're also very cognizant of the spending profiles.  And we are working with the fusion community in the United States as well as internationally to see if we can satisfy both the needs of the fusion community in the U.S. and this ITER commitment. But it's -- in these tight budget times, it's tough.”

Feinstein responded:

“At a later time, I want to know where the $300 million is going to come from. If we keep continuing and don't know where we're going to get the money next year, that's a serious concern.”

Later in the hearing, Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) asked about the Homestake Mine (portions of the exchange were inaudible):

“As you know, over the past year, operations of South Dakota's Homestake Mine have been moving forward . . . progress has been made on the development of the Stanford Underground Research Facility.  Given major scientific discoveries recently announced in the field of high energy physics, it is more important than ever that the U.S. invest in a . . .  underground research facility in which we can provide global leadership in science and technology.

“Unfortunately, it is my understanding that the department's request would reduce funds for sustaining the operations by about a third below the FY 2012 level. This reduction would likely result in layoffs at the lab and undermine the confidence of our  . . .  state, international and private partners that have dedicated significant funding to this project.  How does the department plan to sustain this critical U.S. underground research facility to continue to attract international . . .  . and keep dedicated private and state partners together given the current budget request?”

Chu responded:

“Well, Senator, we want very much to have this underground laboratory continue. We recognize the leadership of your state . . . . And our plans are that we are completing plans for what exactly what types of detector we're going to be putting in there for this long-baseline experiment.  There's been a shift. There's been a new technology development. And the Office of Science tells me that they want - - they think that liquid argon detector might be the best detector.

“And so what we've done is we said, all right, let's continue studying this liquid argon detector. But we do want to move forward on this type of work and this experiment despite all the strains in our budget.  We do believe that you can't really tell where basic research will give us a new insights and new opportunities. And high energy physics, nuclear physics, cosmology, these are areas which - you know, they're essentially flat, but we don't - we still treasure them and want to continue them.”

Regarding other programs, Ranking Member Lamar Alexander (R-TN) lauded the Office of Science, the Energy Innovation Hubs, and ARPA-E.  He spoke of working with Feinstein on the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, and asked a series of questions about the department’s nuclear energy program.  Alexander cast doubt on the subcommittee being able to fully fund the 29 percent requested increase for the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy program.  Questions from other appropriators focused on advanced biofuels, cleanup of the Hanford WA site, oil and gas development, the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, US competitiveness, advanced computing, and funding for the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Note:  Selections are from a transcript prepared by and used with the permission of CQ Roll Call.

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics