Deep state actors at OMB turn DOE leaders into red-faced liars. Cannot revive, revitalize and expand nuclear energy with 25% less money
Mark Menezes, the Undersecretary of Energy at the Department of Energy, gave an optimistic, forward-looking, audience-flattering, stage-setting talk at the Advanced Reactor Technical Summit. At least five times during his 10-minute talk, he repeated various combinations of a phrase – “revive, revitalize and expand” – that is apparently the mantra that the Administration has chosen to describe actions it will take in the nuclear sector.
He told us that the full Administration “from President Trump to Secretary Perry, to the Energy Department staff are all committed to building a brighter future for nuclear energy.” He stroked the egos of audience members, pointing out their ingenuity, tenacity and intellectual brilliance.
He even made the following statement, which was obviously well-received by the assembled audience.
“Going forward, we must strive to revive, revitalize and expand our nuclear capacity. That was reflected in the Energy Department’s budget that we proposed last week. In it, we called for a significant increase in funding for nuclear energy, including funding for early stage R&D for advanced nuclear energy technologies, for more R&D and strategic investments in infrastructure and for the development of small modular reactors, also known as SMRs.”
Most of the audience would have had to feel terrific after that rousing introductory speech. They had traveled to College Station, Texas to talk about progress they had made, support they had attracted, and, perhaps more importantly, the obstacles remaining between them and commercial deployment of their high potential technologies. Hearing that the Administration was fully behind them, ready to make enabling investments, and committed to helping to clear the path to their objective made them sit a little straighter and smile a little brighter.
Those of us who pay close attention to wonky topics like the planning, programming and budgeting cycle, however, were more likely to be squirming in our seats. We knew that the Undersecretary wasn’t telling the truth.
Undersecretary Menezes had the unfortunate timing of giving his talk on Wednesday, Feb 21, just 9 days after the President’s Budget had been publicly released. His staff must have been too busy with higher priority activities to tone down his speech to better match the numbers in the budget. In fact, they must have been so busy – perhaps fielding questions about the budget submission – that they did not have time to remove sections that were flat out contradictions.
By inaction, they allowed the Undersecretary to – perhaps unknowingly – lie about the direction of the nuclear energy budget. There was no “significant increase in funding for nuclear energy.” In contrast, the President’s DOE budget fact sheet contained the following summary statement.
“$757M for Nuclear Energy, $259M below FY 2017 Enacted, to revive and expand the U.S. nuclear energy sector through early-stage R&D, prioritizing support for advanced manufacturing methods, instrumentation, and reactor technologies, including $54M for advanced Small Modular Reactor R&D.”
The published top level numbers (Nuclear Energy is on p. 42-43) provide the details that support the summary statement. The Integrated University Program, STEP R&D, and SMR licensing support have all been reduced to zero dollars for a total reduction of $105 M. Fuel cycle R&D, Radiological Facilities Management, Idaho Facilities Management, Program Direction, and International Nuclear Energy Cooperation all received substantial reductions, including a dramatic 71% reduction ($147.5 M) in Fuel Cycle R&D. The only line items with increases are Reactor Concepts R&D, Nuclear Energy Enabling Technologies (an almost invisible $900,000) and Idaho Sitewide Safeguards and Security.
In addition to describing a 25% budget reduction as a significant increase, Undersecretary Menezes piqued my questioning attitude by mentioning that the President had ordered a “a complete review of our nation’s nuclear energy policies in order to find new ways to revitalize it.”
Though there was no formal Q&A period after the Undersecretary’s talk, Menezes was available for individual questions during the morning break. He seemed genuinely surprised to hear that the nuclear energy budget had received a reduction of 25% and not the increase that he described during his talk. He then began to allude to the tight budgets and the fact that all areas had been cut. I interrupted with the fact that renewable energy tax credits are still costing the federal government something close to $5 billion per year. That’s 5 times the total nuclear energy budget before it was cut.
He acknowledged that Congress had decided to follow through on its commitment from previous years and that the President had signed the deal. He challenged the number I quoted and told me he was pretty sure it wasn’t anywhere close to that amount.
The complete review ordered by the President turned out to be a big hurdle during the budget battle. Apparently OMB career staffers felt that they needed to wait until the review was complete before they could align the budget request to provide resources for whatever programs the review identified. The fact that the review was specifically supposed to identify new ways to revitalize nuclear energy did not sway them into requesting more money, even as a “placeholder.”
More money cannot ensure success, but deep cuts in resources can virtually guarantee failure and loss of experienced experts.
Someone told me that Washington’s best kept secret is the fact that OMB is the final decision maker for Administration programs, not the Presidentially-appointed and Senate-confirmed Cabinet Secretaries.
As my source concluded, “The so-called “deep state” is alive and well, goes by the name OMB, and resides at the Eisenhower and New Executive Office Buildings.”
That’s not a new discovery for someone who spent 9 years fighting budget battles inside the Beltway. The amount of power held by spreadsheet warriors is almost unfathomable, which is why it is beneficial to include experienced political professionals in any effort to make real change.
it’s not surprising to see this happen, this administration is a real let down in some ways.The same thing is happening over at NASA with the plan to shut down the ISS. it seems the concept of public funding of leading edge technologies eludes them. Every thing needs to be privately funded.
With an administration focused on near term cuts in order to support near term goals this is almost expected. A complete shame; where’s the vision?
On the ISS:
The ISS is already at the end of it’s operational lifetime; it was only designed to last 15 years. Even if it’s not purposely shut down by this admin in 2024, it WILL be shut down by 2028.
” it seems the concept of public funding of leading edge technologies eludes them. Every thing needs to be privately funded.”
Would you consider many of today’s politicians to be long term visionaries? Seems like you never hear stuff like:
“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth,”
– John F. Kennedy –
It doesn’t take a lot of vision to see that developing the next generation nuclear reactors will help men for generations to come.
Private funding is done for profit. Public funding should be done for people. There are things that public funding can do that private funding cannot.
Something about Promote the General Welfare.
Government’s record is better on infrastructure (interstate highway, Erie canal, Transcontinental railroad for example) than “cutting edge technology”. Remember, the airplane, electric light, transistor, liquid fueled rocket etc. were invented by private efforts and without government encouragement. Government’s technology successes were usually driven by military motives and very narrowly focused (fission bomb, computer to break codes or calculate artillery tables) and not intended for direct consumer use. Often, cost and long term operability was not a concern which made many technologies so developed poor candidates for commercialization.
What your saying is largely true , but some things require large amounts R&D , time , management and capital . I would place new types of nuclear reactors and space stations in the first category you mentioned. Private corporations don’t usually invest in that type of project. The airplane , electric light and transistor were invented and developed by private efforts , the liquid fuel rocket was also , but the government was needed to build the Saturn V.
It’s not just big stuff like nuclear power. See this link.
cell phone technology
human genome project
I was surprised to see on page 10 of the document it describes Google as getting their start with help from Uncle Sam. Of course we’ve all heard about Al Gore and Darpanet which became today’s internet.
Lots of medicines are developed by government research. They sure have helped Boeing develop good airplanes for the military and then use the tech for the rest of us.
Too bad some of the guys in Congress these days have such a weak inclination towards science. If those rascals weren’t there, their replacements would possibly enhance funding for new reactors.
Yeh – The promote the general welfare thing seems to get short shrift these days.
The Apollo project is an example of what I was saying. It was designed for a very narrow objective where cost was not a concern. Even space advocates concede that it did not lead to an architecture for a sustainable long-term program. One of the key managers was relieved when the program ended because he feared another accident. Apollo was replaced by the space shuttle for cost reasons but is now considered a mistake.
Spacex by contrast has developed a partly reusable launch vehicle. It has received government support by way of contracted launch services. It appears that the legal/regulatory hurdles for aerospace are more surmountable than for nuclear.
While not ideal, current LWR technology is adequate. What good is new technology if there is a political bias against its deployment?
Rod…I liked your post on Energy Collective. One point—My first name is Warren—not Peter. “Pete” is a nick name.
Keep up the good work!
FermiAged said – “While not ideal, current LWR technology is adequate. What good is new technology if there is a political bias against its deployment?”
Sure it’s good, but so was the Model T. If, with a bit of money we can make something better, why not?
I believe political bias can change. Attitudes have changed regarding smoking, for example.
The world will move on. Why not in a positive direction that helps us all?
The problem is not the technology, though it certainly can be improved. It is the legal and regulatory environment.
If NuScale’s design is required to have hundreds of security guards, scores of operators and large evacuation zones, it’s dead on arrival.
Smoking attitudes changed in large part because it was made more expensive. This also had the same effect on nuclear power.
Not really topical for this article, but I never know where to share general interest type stuff…
So a solicitor knocked on my door last night for some group that’s concerned about toxic waste pollution in Texas — especially after Harvey. I talked with her a bit. Mentioned that I used to live south of Houston not too far from the refineries. Agreed it was a concern, but that I would need to know more details about their approach, as, for example, it’s silly to push for the cleanup, as they’re doing in Florida, of a mildly radioactive area that’s below background levels, when there are other places the money could be better spent for more beneficial effects. Discussed a bit about prioritizing cleanups.
Then when she was done with her spiel, I said, now I’m going to solicit you back. As a person interested in the environment, you’re probably concerned about CO2. Did you know that Germany emits 480 grams of CO2 per KWHr generated, while France only emits 60 grams per KWHr emitted. So why does everyone say we should imitate Germany instead of France?” And so on. At one point she asked what was different about France, and I got to drop the nuclear bomb. And pointed out that Chernobyl, which isn’t a good example for comparison anyway, killed about 50 people, according to the UN, not some nutty organization. Etc. Also pointed out that Austin gets 27% of it’s electricity from STNP and it’s our largest source of CO2 free energy.
I spent about 3 times as long soliciting her for nuclear power as she did me for toxic waste. I think I ran on a little too long. I need to tune that. But there’s so many preemptive facts to supply to counter the packs of lies that are used to discredit nuclear.
I think my new policy is that if someone knocks on my door, I will sell them a nuclear reactor.
Good work! That kind of approach by everyone will make a difference.
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