Sobering Appropriations Hearings for DOE Office of Energy Research

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Publication date: 
21 March 1995
Number: 
42

Dr. Martha Krebs, director of DOE's Office of Energy Research
(OER), appeared before the House Energy and Water Development
Appropriations Subcommittee on March 9, and before its Senate
counterpart on March 14.  The hearings, on DOE's FY 1996 budget
request for energy research, ran along similar themes: subcommittee
members warned of proposals to eliminate DOE, queried Krebs on
DOE's response to the Galvin report on DOE's labs (see FYIs #17,
#40), and questioned the status of the fusion program.

The chairman of the House energy appropriations subcommittee, John
Myers (R-IN), said he had "heard...rumblings" about abolishing the
Department.  Krebs responded that since DOE's missions will
persist, she could not see how redistributing funding would save
money.  Asked by Ranking Minority Member Tom Bevill (D-AL) whether
DOE's "successes could be duplicated profitably by the private
sector," she answered that private industry is "pulling out of
basic research."  Rep. Vic Fazio (D-CA) asked for evidence that
businesses want DOE to continue its functions.  Krebs pointed out
that about one-half of DOE's facilities users are from the private
sector, and the labs receive several times more proposals for
partnering with industry than they can accommodate.

Krebs said that in response to the Galvin report, DOE and OER were
trying to "work smarter" by improving management and oversight of
the labs and increasing utilization of user facilities.  She felt
that the Department could make management changes to the labs
faster and more effectively than the report's recommendation of
corporatizing them.

Krebs noted that the OER budget request included the 6.8 percent
increase for high energy physics recommended by the Drell Panel,
including a small amount (approximately $6 million) to initiate
participation in CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC.)  She estimated
that continued participation in future years would cost $40-50
million a year for the next decade, which she called "pretty
inexpensive in comparison to the SSC."  Warned by Fazio that some
might consider the B-Factory still "within reach" for budget cuts,
Krebs reported that it was about 30 percent complete.

A major concern of the subcommittee is fusion research.  Bevill
complained that 25 years ago, DOE promised "a breakthrough in 25
years."  Krebs responded that a breakthrough had been achieved last
year at Princeton's Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor.  Asked about the
chances of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor
(ITER) being built and the additional need for the Tokamak Physics
Experiment (TPX), Krebs said a review of the U.S. fusion program by
the President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology
(PCAST), due by July, would be "critical" to the Administration's
perspective.  She added that while ITER would lead to a commercial
demonstration power plant, TPX would maintain the vitality of the
domestic program, but admitted that one could be built without the
other. 

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) warned that the House Science
Subcommittee on Energy and Environment was preparing a new DOE
authorization bill that would significantly cut fusion funding.
The authorization bill, while not providing funds, would guide the
appropriations legislation.  "This committee's always supported
fusion," Myers said, but "we keep asking for the light at the end
of the tunnel....  This committee's been burned so many times."

At the March 14 hearing before the Senate energy appropriations
subcommittee, chairman Pete Domenici (R-NM), whose state is home to
several national labs, announced that he intended to ensure that
the labs "are sufficiently funded and staffed to meet the needs of
the 21st century."  Noting that the federal R&D effort is
"splattered across a number of agencies," Conrad Burns (R-MT), who
chairs the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Science, Technology and
Space, queried whether it should be coordinated under one umbrella.
Krebs argued that the government departments and agencies involved
in research all "have legitimate missions to pursue."  Proclaiming
himself "astounded" at talk of doing away with DOE, Domenici said,
"I'm going to proceed as though we'll have a Department of Energy."
Ranking Minority Member J. Bennett Johnston (D-LA) agreed that "we
need to keep DOE... and the capability of doing energy research....
If the government doesn't do basic research," he said, in today's
budget climate, "almost no one will."

Johnston, although pro-fusion, questioned building the TPX when the
country did not have a firm commitment to ITER.  "Why go into
another SSC debacle without opening our eyes?" he asked.
Questioned about the cost of the spallation neutron accelerator
that DOE has proposed to replace the canceled Advanced Neutron
Source (ANS), Krebs answered "we don't know yet," but estimated
perhaps $1 billion.

As the hearing drew to a close, Johnston promised the subcommittee
would try to "keep the science function [within DOE] strong and
healthy."  Whether the appropriations subcommittees are able to do
so remains to be seen.  They have yet to receive their budget
allocations, and pressures are strong within some sectors of the
Republican party to do away with the Department of Energy.  Just
recently, the House Budget Committee proposed cuts to DOE's energy
research mission as part of a $100 billion budget-reduction package
over the next five years (see FYI #41.) 

The PCAST review of the U.S. fusion energy program will be chaired
by John Holdren, a professor of energy sciences at the University
of California, Berkeley.  Further information on this review will
be available by the end of next week.