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Trump energy budget would slash INL funding. Here’s why Idaho congressmen aren’t worried

An Idaho facility that’s a leader in nuclear energy advancements could see drastic changes to its 2020 budget under new proposals from President Donald Trump.

The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources began hearings this week on Trump’s fiscal year 2020 budget proposal for the Department of Energy, which would slash funding across the board, including for the Idaho National Laboratory.

The $31.7 billion proposal is a nearly 11% decrease from the $35.5 billion budget approved by Congress last year. Spending at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho Operations Office would take a 45% cut in funding from last year’s approved budget, down to roughly $131.8 million. The Idaho National Laboratory would sustain a 19.7% funding cut, down to $1.1 billion from last year’s $1.4 billion.

The Senate committee, of which Idaho Sen. Jim Risch is a member, met Tuesday morning to examine the proposed budget and hear from Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, who touted some of the budget changes that would affect Idaho.

In a statement to the committee, Perry said the proposed budget boosts “a safeguards and security program with funding at $138 million for protection of our nuclear energy infrastructure and investments at Idaho National Laboratory facilities.”

“The budget request includes $348 million to continue cleanup projects at the Idaho site, such as the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit, and to process, characterize and package transuranic waste for disposal at offsite facilities,” Perry said in his statement.

That’s down from $420 million in previous years, the budget proposal shows.

The INL told the Statesman to direct any budget-related questions to the Department of Energy.

This Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017 photo provided by the Idaho National Laboratory shows the Idaho National Laboratory Transient Reactor Test Facility in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Idaho National Laboratory via AP Chris Morgan

Budget would affect Idaho’s nuclear, renewable energy

The proposed budget includes cuts to nuclear and renewable energy programs across the country, including those at the INL and the Idaho DOE operations office.

If the budget were to pass as proposed, INL would lose a quarter of its nuclear energy funding, slashing the budget from $694 million to $518 million. The bulk of those cuts would affect research and development for the department’s fuel cycle program, which aims to maximize energy output from nuclear programs while minimizing waste. Resources for the lab’s Nuclear Energy Enabling Technology programs would also be hit hard by the cuts.

Additionally, INL’s renewable energy programs could lose more than 60% of their funding under the proposed budget. That would mean cuts to programs on wind energy, geothermal technologies, water power, hydrogen and fuel cell technologies, vehicle technologies and bioenergy technologies.

The budget also proposes a 75% decrease in funding for “defense nuclear nonproliferation research and development,” a program meant to prevent nuclear terrorism worldwide.

Fuel cycle and nuclear reactor research at the Idaho DOE office would take the greatest hit under the proposed budget.

The budget also proposes funding increases in some arenas — reviving research into some coal energy systems, boosting spending on the Navy’s nuclear propulsion program and cybersecurity and energy security initiatives.

Critics worry the cuts could mean fewer jobs at one of Idaho’s largest employers.

Caleb Heeringa, deputy press secretary for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal initiative, raised concerns that jobs could be cut if the Congress accepts the proposed budget. INL employes about 3,900 people.

Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson, ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, said he doesn’t think that’s likely.

“I wouldn’t expect any layoffs (at INL) due to the budget,” Simpson told the Statesman in a phone interview. “I think INL will come out fine.”

Idaho Congressional delegation.jpg
Idaho’s Congressional delegation, from left to right, is made up of Sen. Mike Crapo, Sen. Jim Risch, Rep. Mike Simpson and Rep. Russ Fulcher. All are Republicans.

Idaho’s congressmen weigh in on INL, energy budgets

Members of Idaho’s congressional delegation have gone to bat for INL in the past. Simpson said he fought to increase funding for nuclear energy programs last year as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. He said he expects nuclear energy spending will decrease slightly this year,

In an email statement to the Statesman, Republican Rep. Russ Fulcher said budget control is in line with his political views, though he has written a letter to congressional appropriations committees to urge full funding of INL’s top five priorities.

“As a fiscal conservative, I believe we have a spending problem,” Fulcher said in the statement. “The recent budget is written to comply with the Budget Control Act ... [and] as a result, President Trump had to write a budget to sequester numbers and every agency was forced to take a hit.”

That said, Fulcher said he supports the mission of the lab and recognize its benefits to Idaho.

“I am hopeful that Congress will continue to provide funding to the lab to sustain its critical work to Idaho and our national security,” he said. “In the coming weeks, I plan to visit the lab and share my support of their work.”

Fulcher’s letter, addressed to House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Marcy Kaptur and Simpson, calls for funding for facilities management and research efforts on reactor concepts and fuel cycles.

Sen. Mike Crapo also called on his colleagues to boost funding for INL, according to a statement.

“He is currently involved in reaching out to appropriators to support funding of the Lab’s priorities and, as he has in previous years, will continue be a vocal advocate for robust funding for the Lab and its activities,“ wrote spokeswoman Melanie Baucom.

Crapo, along with Risch and Simpson, said the president’s budget proposal is just that — a request.

“The president’s budget proposal is merely a suggestion. Congress retains the power of the purse and sets our nation’s spending priorities,” Risch said in a statement through spokeswoman Kaylin Minton.

Risch in his statement expressed optimism in his energy committee colleagues.

“(Sen. Risch) will continue to work with congressional appropriators to ensure INL’s funding levels meet their needs,” Minton said. “Congress understands the importance of nuclear innovation and past spending levels have reflected that.”

Simpson said ongoing negotiations will be more telling as Congress sets a final cap for energy spending.

“We kind of make a little too much of the president’s proposal,” Simpson said. “None of us believe that is going to be the final law.”

Idaho clean energy initiatives contrast with budget

The potential cuts to clean energy programs stand in stark contrast to recent moves in Idaho.

Late last month, statewide utility Idaho Power announced its plans to move entirely to clean energy by 2045. On Tuesday, Boise followed suit, with the City Council approving plans to use only clean energy citywide by 2035.

Idaho Power said its decision was spurred by increasing customer demand for clean energy.

Earlier in the year, Idaho lawmakers also held their first official hearing on climate change, a departure from previous skepticism on the topic.

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Nicole Blanchard is the Idaho Statesman’s outdoors reporter. She grew up in Idaho, graduated from Idaho State University and Northwestern University and frequents the trails around Boise as much as she can.