ORNL’s Mason talks about the FY 2017 budget request

mason-thumb-300x313-13696.jpgA big emphasis in Department of Energy’s proposed FY 2017 budget is the so-called Mission Innovation, which is an agreement between the United States and 19 other countries to double research on clean energy over the next five years.

If this multibillion-dollar initiative moves forward — and meets with the approval of Congress — Oak Ridge National Laboratory could be a beneficiary of added funding for research programs that are already an Oak Ridge strength.

ORNL Director Thom Mason expressed enthusiasm for the programs but also noted there is obvious uncertainty about whether an administration priority will become a priority with Congress and survive some budget constraints already in place.

“This starts the process and what wins out could be different,” Mason said.

The budget contains increased money for ORNL’s 10-year-old Bio-Energy Science Center in 2017, which is good news, but the Department of Energy is planning a new funding opportunity to get more ideas and the Oak Ridge lab will have to beat other labs to keep that work funded in the future.

“I’m confident we’ll have a great proposal,” Mason said. “The fact that there’s going to be a competition is not a surprise. Our job is to come up with the best ideas.”

The Obama budget also includes $107 million (correcting an earlier figure) in operating funds for the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility, which includes Titan — a Cray system that is the nation’s fastest supercomputer. That’s an increase of about $3 million from the 2016 funding.

The budget proposal also includes enough money to continue with development of Summit, the next-generation machine at ORNL that’s being developed by a team headed by IBM. Summit could become the world’s fastest computer.

The plans for Summit are flexible, and so the contract is built around the level of funding available and the cost of development of the new supercomputer. The capabilities of the new computer could range from 150 petaflops up to the possibility of 300 petaflops. Mason said there current is funding sufficient to plan for at least 200 petaflops, and he’s optimistic that machine delivered to Oak Ridge will end up with even more.

In another positive note, ORNL has been named headquarters for the Multi-Lab Exascale Computing Project, which is a big deal, and the lab will be managing the research and development of technologies for exascale computers — thousands of times more powerful than today’s best. Mason compared it to the leadership role Oak Ridge played in the multi-lab design effort for the Spallation Neutron Source.

Speaking of neutron sources, the budget requests includes a bump up in operating money for the High Flux Isotope Reactor, which would bring it to $64.5 million. “The cost of fuel continues to be a challenge,” Mason said.

But the Obama budget proposal would reduce the funding at the SNS.

Mason was obviously pleased with the proposal to add funds at the reactor, which went for years without funding increases until this year, but he wasn’t thrilled with the SNS funding request $5 million below the current level of $198 million.

There apparently is no mention in the FY 2017 budget of a second Target Station for the SNS, which would double the research capabilities and cost a bit more than $1 billion. Planning for that second target is being funded of the SNS operating funds at this time.

Oak Ridge is headquarters for the U.S. effort on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), and there have been continuing issues about funding the ITER involvement.

“Funding has not been sufficient to be full speed ahead (on the ITER activities),” Mason said.

The FY 2017 request for ITER is $125 million, which is less than desired by the project managers and that’s probably not going to sort itself out for a while. There are some powerful folks in Washington who have repeatedly criticized the project’s development and questioned whether the U.S. should remain a partner.

“This is sort of a half-in, half-out sort of situation until the decision is made,” Mason said.

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