Senate Passes $37.5 Billion Energy and Water Spending Measure

The U.S. Senate passed a $37.5 billion energy and water spending bill that would provide funds for a private-sector nuclear waste storage program, aid extensions of nuclear plant licenses and finance research on wind energy.

The measure, passed 90-8 Thursday, would increase spending by $355 million over the current fiscal year and is the first stand-alone energy and water measure passed by the Senate since 2009. The vote came after senators blocked a proposed amendment over Iran’s nuclear program that had stalled final passage of the bill for two weeks.

The bill, H.R. 2028, would finance the Energy Department, Army Corps of Engineers, parts of the Interior Department and other agencies, providing $261 million more than President Barack Obama requested. It includes about $1.16 billion more for defense-related programs within the Energy Department compared with the previous year.

“It helps resolve the nuclear waste stalemate that our country has been in for 25 years,” bill sponsor Lamar Alexander said on the Senate floor before the vote. The measure “proposes places to put used nuclear fuel so we can continue to have a strong nuclear power program,” he said.

The bill also “invests in our waterways, it repairs our locks, it deepens our harbors,” said Alexander, a Tennessee Republican.

Although Alexander had urged his colleagues to “show some restraint” and avoid offering amendments that would draw opposition, Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas sought to bar funding for U.S. purchases of Iranian heavy water, which is used in some nuclear reactors.

The purchase is part of Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, and the Cotton amendment was opposed by Democrats and the administration. Alexander also came out against Cotton’s amendment, which he said could put Iran’s heavy water on the international market and create a risk that North Korea could obtain it. The Senate voted Wednesday to block the amendment.

The prospects for an energy and water spending measure in the House aren’t clear. The Appropriations Committee approved its $37.4 billion version on April 19, but the appropriation process is moving more slowly in that chamber.

Nuclear Energy Measures

The Senate bill would authorize permits for new interim private-sector nuclear waste storage sites without taking the place of stalled plans for a permanent storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, Alexander said. The House version would fund a process for licensing the Yucca Mountain facility and prevent the funding of an alternative, similar to language in an omnibus spending bill passed by Congress in December.

Alexander said in a statement that the measure also would support research needed to extend nuclear power operating licenses from 60 to 80 years.

Wind power would get a boost, over Alexander’s objections. Senators approved an amendment sponsored by Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley and Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley that would allow $95.4 million — already appropriated for renewable energy — to be used for wind-energy research.

The Energy Department has estimated that by 2050, wind turbines could provide 35 percent of the nation’s electricity and that the industry could create 600,000 new jobs by then.

“We can only reach those goals if we support wind energy research,” Merkley said. Research on integrating wind turbines into the electric power grid is “key to reducing the cost of wind energy.”