On January 31, the House Energy and Water Development
Appropriations Subcommittee convened a second hearing on "The
Future of the Department of Energy." In contrast to an earlier
hearing on this topic (see FYI #10), the witnesses at this hearing
gave DOE a much stronger vote of confidence.
Chairman John Myers (R-Indiana) set the tone for this more
optimistic hearing by saying there "nothing new" about calls for
change at DOE, and that the subcommittee was interested in what "we
might do to work together to make it more effective to do the job
that we so vitally need." Despite this upbeat tone, Myers
expressed reservations about DOE's fusion energy program and the
Edward Teller, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; William
Happer, Princeton University; Frederick Bernthal, Universities
Research Association; and John Conway, Defense Nuclear Facilities
Safety Board testified at this hearing. All supported DOE and its
national labs, although many efficiency and cost-cutting
recommendations were offered.
Rep. Jim Chapman (D-Texas), citing the previous hearing, asked
Teller if it was appropriate for DOE to be involved in research, to
which Teller replied "absolutely yes." Chapman said this response
was "significantly more telling than a lot of rhetoric we heard
here a week or so ago." Happer testified that "the loss of DOE
funds for basic research would be devastating for the research
community, and in the long run, the loss would be devastating for
the US economy." He warned that DOE's research function has "no
obvious defenders," and could be lost if the department was
radically reorganized. Bernthal offered a strong defense of the
national labs, but criticized their management by DOE, cautioning,
"if current policies and trends continue I believe the national
laboratories as a group will experience a slow decline."
Ranking Minority Member Tom Bevill (D-Alabama) expressed some
misgivings about unspecified DOE programs, saying "we don't have
anything to show for it." He narrowed the discussion to energy
programs, with fusion research eventually becoming a central topic.
Continuing this line of questioning, Chairman Myers asked, "can we
afford ITER?" Happer said no one knew what ITER would cost, or the
difficulty getting four nations to agree on a reactor site, warning
that it could take years of negotiations. "That's my nightmare,"
Happer said. "I'm speaking very frankly, I'm just not sure it will
happen.... it has an enormous impact on our national program. It
is the centerpiece of our fusion program. Everything goes for
ITER. And what happens to the native American program?" Myers
responded, "Are you suggesting then that if we do go to ITER, or
TPX, that some of the fusion programs are going to suffer, that the
research is going to suffer?" Happer replied, "yes sir." Myers
continued, "twenty-five years ago, we were promised within five,
possibly ten years, we would have at least a working model of a
fusion reactor...." Happer described the "enormous progress"
accomplished in fusion research, citing Princeton's TFTR. Myers
agreed, but said of the effort that "it's kind of expensive, it
isn't what we had in mind." The amount of money provided by
Congress for this research is probably at least a partial cause of
this outcome, Myers admitted.
Expanding on this theme, Myers continued, "it's just one of many
programs...we are thinking about; CERN is an example. Do we need
to drop out...and come back here at home?" Showing some emotion,
Myers said, "This committee has been burned, a number of times,
through bad advice," citing abandoned DOE projects up through the
SSC. Support for the collider was strong until a site was
selected, he said, predicting that ITER could run into similar
problems. "We got to decide, make some decisions here," before
spending multi-billions of dollars for ITER, Myers stated.
Myers, obviously a proponent of DOE, summed-up what will likely be
his approach to possible termination of DOE's large projects: "If
we're going to get cold feet a year or two from now, we had better
do it now."