Energy Secretary Chu Appears Before Senate Appropriators

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Publication date: 
26 March 2012

Energy  Secretary Steven Chu appeared before the Senate Energy and Water Development  Appropriations Subcommittee on March 14.   Appropriators were generally receptive to the FY 2013 request for the  Department of Energy, and in many cases spoke of their desire to see it play a  more active role in several areas.

Of  interest to the physics community are the opening remarks of the subcommittee  chair and two important exchanges regarding the Fusion Energy Sciences program and  the status of the Homestake Mine in South Dakota.  In her opening remarks, subcommittee Chair  Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) stated:

“So  the department is making clear its priorities there. However, in the non-priority  subprograms, it's more difficult to understand the administration's position  because the department has failed to prioritize activities within the very  limited funding.

One  example is Fusion Energy Science. The overall Fusion Energy Science's budget is  not large enough to accommodate our commitment to the ITER project in France,  while at the same time maintaining our domestic program.  The difficult decision was apparently made to  cut funding to the fusion facility at MIT. The budget though fails to fully  fund the commitment to ITER. This will likely increase our total contribution  to ITER in the future and delay the project.   I understand the decision not to prioritize Fusion Energy Sciences in  the tight budget environment. But if we're making that decision, then we need  to follow through and make the actual tough decisions within the program itself  and not leave them floundering around.  It  now appears that we're simply going to cripple both our domestic and  international efforts.”

In  Feinstein’s first round of questions she asked the following question about  fusion funding:

“Let's  go to fusion and ITER. And $150 million this year with the United States  contribution to ITER subject to grow to $300 million. Now, this is going to take  money away from domestic fusion programs that we're already concerned at NIF  and also other scientific priorities such as materials and biology research.  Here's the question. Should the United States  consider withdrawing from ITER or at least reducing the United States  contribution? And if we continue to fund it, where would the $300 million come  from?

Secretary  Chu replied:

“Senator,  you're asking a very important question that we asked ourselves. But first let  me assure you that the program at NIF [National Ignition Facility] is not  actually competing with ITER. And NIF is supported by the NNSA [National  Nuclear Security Administration] budget. And we want to make sure that that new  program goes forward.  Now, ITER is international  science collaboration. It - in the view of the fusion community - represents  the most advanced, best chance we have of trying to control plasmas in a way  that it can potentially . . . bring about controlled fusion for power  generation.  And it is an international  cooperation. And we I think want this to go forward. We want to be seen as reliable  international partners. But we're also very cognizant of the spending profiles.  And we are working with the fusion community  in the United States as well as internationally to see if we can satisfy both  the needs of the fusion community in the U.S. and this ITER commitment. But  it's -- in these tight budget times, it's tough.”

Feinstein  responded:

“At  a later time, I want to know where the $300 million is going to come from. If  we keep continuing and don't know where we're going to get the money next year,  that's a serious concern.”

Later  in the hearing, Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) asked about the Homestake Mine  (portions of the exchange were inaudible):

“As  you know, over the past year, operations of South Dakota's Homestake Mine have  been moving forward . . . progress has been made on the development of the Stanford  Underground Research Facility.  Given  major scientific discoveries recently announced in the field of high energy  physics, it is more important than ever that the U.S. invest in a . . .  underground research facility in which we can  provide global leadership in science and technology.

“Unfortunately,  it is my understanding that the department's request would reduce funds for  sustaining the operations by about a third below the FY 2012 level. This  reduction would likely result in layoffs at the lab and undermine the  confidence of our  . . .  state, international and private partners that  have dedicated significant funding to this project.  How does the department plan to sustain this  critical U.S. underground research facility to continue to attract  international . . .  . and keep dedicated  private and state partners together given the current budget request?”

Chu  responded:

“Well,  Senator, we want very much to have this underground laboratory continue. We  recognize the leadership of your state . . . . And our plans are that we are completing  plans for what exactly what types of detector we're going to be putting in  there for this long-baseline experiment.   There's been a shift. There's been a new technology development. And the  Office of Science tells me that they want - - they think that liquid argon  detector might be the best detector.

“And  so what we've done is we said, all right, let's continue studying this liquid  argon detector. But we do want to move forward on this type of work and this  experiment despite all the strains in our budget.  We do believe that you can't really tell  where basic research will give us a new insights and new opportunities. And  high energy physics, nuclear physics, cosmology, these are areas which - you  know, they're essentially flat, but we don't - we still treasure them and want  to continue them.”

Regarding  other programs, Ranking Member Lamar Alexander (R-TN) lauded the Office of  Science, the Energy Innovation Hubs, and ARPA-E.  He spoke of working with Feinstein on the  recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, and  asked a series of questions about the department’s nuclear energy program.  Alexander cast doubt on the subcommittee  being able to fully fund the 29 percent requested increase for the Energy  Efficiency and Renewable Energy program.   Questions from other appropriators focused on advanced biofuels, cleanup  of the Hanford WA site, oil and gas development, the Yucca Mountain nuclear  waste repository, US competitiveness, advanced computing, and funding for the  National Nuclear Security Administration.

Note:  Selections are from a transcript prepared by  and used with the permission of CQ Roll Call.