In his first visit to East Tennessee since his March confirmation as U.S. Secretary of Energy, Rick Perry toured facilities at Y-12 and ORNL Monday.
Perry's visit came one day before President Trump is set to release his first full budget for the 2018 fiscal year.
Proposed cuts, as outlined in Trump's so-called "skinny budget," released in March, could have possible impacts on work at the National Lab.
However, Perry, speaking to reporters after his tour, affirmed the importance of the work being done at Y-12 and ORNL and said he'll support continued, and even expanded, funding.
"What's going on right behind us at this 3D printer and its application: the defense of our country, the economics of our country. All are, in some form or fashion, being exhibited here, around this facility," Perry said. "I will be a strong advocate for not only the funding of this but, obviously, the expansion of that in the places that it makes sense."
He plans to take that argument back to Washington with him, "that what DOE is involved with, particularly on the economic development side, plays a vital role not only in the security of America but in the economic well-being of this country as we go forward."
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander joined Perry for the afternoon tour of ORNL's Manufacturing Demonstration Facility. There, the men surveyed - and Perry test-drove - a small fleet of 3D printed vehicles, including an excavator and utility vehicle.
But funding for the research of advanced vehicles like these could be in jeopardy.
Trump's full budget, due out Tuesday, is expected to contain cuts to the Energy Department's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), for one. That accounted for $116.9 million of ORNL funding in Fiscal Year 2015, according to this year's DOE State of the National Labs Report (p. 192).
ORNL director Thom Mason said President Trump's budget still has to go through the approval process and much is likely to change before it's passed.
"I think the fact that we are working in important areas and delivering results that are important to the nation will help us through that process," Mason told 10News. "I think we have made the case that the people who come to work here every day at Oak Ridge National Lab get up in the morning, knowing that the work they do makes a difference."
Still, he pointed out, Trump's skinny budget called for cuts that, if passed, would most certainly impact ORNL. The Manufacturing Demonstration Facility, for example, where Perry test-drove the 3D printed vehicles, "is largely funded by the Advanced Manufacturing Program, which is part of the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE)," Mason explained.
Next door to that is the National Transportation Research Center, which is part of the Vehicle Technologies Program of the EERE.
"So those energy programs, whether it's nuclear energy, energy efficiency, renewables, fossil ... were identified in the skinny budget for fairly significant cuts," Mason said, "as was the Office of Science that funds a lot of fundamental research that's really in behind this more application-oriented work, because in the end it's things we do with new materials and with computing that transforms our ability to manufacture those new products."
Alexander, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee and, specifically, on the Energy subcommittee, said he'll be working with Perry in crafting the budget legislation.
"I feel pretty sure we'll come with an appropriations bill that moves Oak Ridge and Y-12 forward," Alexander said.
His priorities haven't changed, he said, since his FY2017 appropriations work.
"They'll continue to be, to make sure the uranium production facility stays on time and on budget, to make sure we support the goals for supercomputing," Alexander said. "To make sure we support the materials research and the nuclear research and innovations like the additive manufacturing (3D printing). I'm very comfortable with that."
He said regardless of what is in Trump's proposed budget, Congress ultimately has to write the appropriations bill and the president has to sign that.
This was not just a photo op for the secretary. Perry spent several hours touring the lab and Y-12, Mason said, and got to see and learn about many of the cutting edge projects and products in process.
"Obviously, what you see here, I happen to think is a high priority," Perry told reporters. "The Administration's goal to create jobs and wealth, I will suggest to you, are centered in the Department of Energy and the things that we have the capability of dealing with."
Asked whether he'll have to sell his newly found enthusiasm for national labs to the White House, Perry said the president knew what he was getting when he tapped Perry as Energy Secretary. Perry pointed to his experience leading and managing the budget for Texas, as governor.