For now, I’m going to leave all names out of this piece of hearsay. Please believe me when I say that my sources are good and varied.
Throughout his campaign, President Trump ran on the slogan “Make America Great Again.” That inspired many to attend his rallies and probably convinced many to vote for him.
Within the shrinking nuclear energy industry, there was hope that the new Administration would recognize that nuclear energy was one part of the American economy that used to be great and offered vast potential for even greater accomplishment.
There have been many words uttered since the election victory to reinforce that optimism.
However, as a former successful Republican president famously said, “Trust but verify.” Because he was a great communicator, he didn’t expand the statement to explain what one should do if the verification fails.
Here’s my expansion of Reagan’s good advice. “Trust but verify. If verification reveals that trust wasn’t justified, stop trusting.”
A week or so ago, the Trump Administration released its proposed budget for FY2019. In spite of all of the positive, warm and friendly words from various representatives of the Administration within the Department of Energy, the budget for the Office of Nuclear Energy has been slashed by 25% from the nominal dollar amount appropriated and spent during FY2017.
The nice, warm and friendly people that the Administration has put into leadership positions at DOE have had their feet chopped off by the green eyeshade budget analysts at the Office of Management and Budget. They apparently believe that their job is to spread budget cut pain evenly, without any prioritization that reflects public promises.
They also seem to be under the mistaken impression that Trump was elected by people who wanted immense cuts in all government programs outside of DOD.
Some of the nice people at DOE are good soldiers who are now put into the thankless roll of explaining how an industry is supposed to lift itself out of a lengthy period of insufficient support with 25% less money than they had just last year. They say public private partnerships will save us and that they want “the industry” to lead.
Aside: What industry do we have left? Small companies working on advanced reactors are intriguing and exciting, but need positive reinforcement. Operating companies are following through with their promises to close marginal plants. At some point that we may already have passed, the number of plant employees needed will be substantially less than the supply of qualified and willing applicants. Westinghouse is broke and broken. GE isn’t interested. End Aside.
The nice folks at DOE make noises about in-kind programs like GAIN (Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear) without acknowledging that the top line budget number can only be achieved with substantial headcount reduction at the national labs. Those are the “Crown Jewels” of America’s nuclear energy investment that are supposed to make themselves available to assist industry in solving common problems.
They say things like “if money could solve the problems, they would have been solved already” as a way to attempt to pacify frustrated questioners. They fail to acknowledge that it’s been three decades or more since anyone actually tried to solve the U.S.’s flailing nuclear development infrastructure by giving it an adequate budget.
They attempt to claim that a big part of the funding reduction was reaching the end of the SMR licensing assistance program, but they fail to acknowledge that the program was woefully underfunded in terms of achieving its stated goal of helping he NRC work out the unproven parts of its licensing review process for smaller reactors.
Some seem to believe that the submission of NuScale’s Design Certification Application was the desired end state that meant the program had achieved its goal. They need to review the documents created at the time the program was initiated to recognize how far the government has fallen short of completing its part of the task. There is still a long list of unresolved issues and decisions that only the government can make, but there is no money left to defray the cost of making them.
The plan cannot be to help America become great in nuclear energy development by charging a startup company like NuScale to complete the government’s task of determining how to treat small and advanced reactors that work differently than the large light water reactors built and licensed many years to decades ago.
There is no hope of enough room in a $750 million per year nuclear energy budget to allow DOE to do anything to provide a fast neutron testing capability as envisioned by a bill (H.R. 4378) that recently sailed through the House of Representatives and has been put before the Senate. The drafters of that bill likely assumed – based on the same statements that have given some hope to nuclear energy professionals – that DOE would add money to the Office of Nuclear Energy’s budget. There was no need to suspect that the plan was really to cut $250 million from the Obama Administration’s already meager number.
Some have told me that the initial budget submission is just a number that will be rescued by interested Congressional leaders. Maybe they will add a bit of money to protect the programs at labs in their district. This gamesmanship is risky at best and will not result in anything better than a lifeline to the squeakiest programs.
Really important work will not be done. Programs that have been underway for a number of years and are nearing a solid endpoint may be dropped just short of the finish line, making all of the prior milestone achievements virtually worthless.
We have tremendous human capital assets in nuclear energy here in America. Many are stressed to the quitting point. A cut of 25% in the DOE nuclear energy budget may send the signal that it’s time to stop trying and to move onto somewhat easier ways to make a living. That would have serious negative consequences for current and future generations.