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.