Amendment to Ban Purchase of Heavy Water from Iran Stalls Senate DOE Appropriations Bill

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Publication date: 
28 April 2016

A controversial amendment which would prevent the U.S. from purchasing excess heavy water from Iran has dimmed hopes for smooth passage of the Senate appropriations bill which funds the Department of Energy.

The Senate appeared to be just hours away from historically early passage of the Department of Energy (DOE) appropriations bill when a one sentence amendment derailed the legislation and soured what had been a mostly bipartisan amendment process.

“At the appropriate place, insert the following: Sec. __.  None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be obligated or expended (1) to purchase heavy water produced in Iran; or (2) to issue a license for the purchase of heavy water produced in Iran,” reads the amendment.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR)Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), pictured left, offered the amendment after learning of DOE’s agreement to buy 32 tons of heavy water from Iran. Under the recent nuclear deal, Iran is prohibited for 15 years from possessing more than 90 tons of heavy water after converting its Arak reactor into a research reactor incapable of producing significant amounts of plutonium. Before conversion, the cap is 130 tons.

Heavy water is a material of concern because it enables a reactor to produce certain ingredients for nuclear weapons, namely plutonium and tritium. However, heavy water is also used in scientific and industrial applications, such as mass spectroscopy and production of optical fibers.

Iran has already shipped enough heavy water out of the country to meet the 130 ton limit but reportedly was having trouble finding buyers. DOE views the purchase as a means of signaling to other countries that Iran can be trusted as a supplier of heavy water, thus helping Iran uphold its commitment to maintain a limited stock of the material.

The purchase also provides DOE with a large amount of a material it cannot produce itself. The United States is one of the world’s primary consumers of heavy water yet has not produced the substance domestically since closure of a production plant at Savannah River National Laboratory in 1981.

DOE intends to use six of the 32 tons to enhance the neutron intensity of the Spallation Neutron Source at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and resell some of the remaining amount to U.S. companies.

Senate Democrats and White House insist amendment is a “poison pill”

Cotton, a vocal critic of the Iran nuclear deal, explained that the purpose of his amendment is to block future purchases of heavy water from Iran:

The Obama Administration stated that this purchase is a one-time deal and the United States will not become a repeat customer of Iran's over-production of heavy water…This amendment would simply hold his Administration to its promise by ensuring that taxpayer dollars cannot be used again for the same purpose. We've given the terror-sponsoring Iranian regime enough concessions at the risk of our security; we should not further subsidize its enrichment activity by making repeated purchases of this material.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest soon fired back, arguing that Cotton is only interested in derailing the Iran nuclear agreement:

Senator Cotton is certainly no expert when it comes to heavy-water. I'm confident that he couldn’t differentiate heavy-water from sparkling water. His focus is on undermining the effective implementation of this agreement that prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Democratic senators consider Cotton’s amendment to be a “poison pill” provision, and vowed to block the bill if Cotton or the Republican majority forced a vote on the amendment. Furthermore, the White House has indicated that the president will likely veto the bill if Cotton’s amendment is adopted.

Senate vote on Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill

This stalemate does not bode well for the timely passage of appropriations bills this year, a top priority of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). "It ought not to be this hard to pass an Energy-Water appropriations bill," he said, adding "we need to continue to talk about this because this is a ridiculous place for the Senate to be. Ridiculous."

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) countered "If they're serious about doing their job as the Republican leader said, we're happy to go on this bill now. But if Republicans continue to insist on these poison pill amendments—and there's no question that's what this is—then we're going to have to continue as we have."

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the Republican lead for the Energy-Water bill, indicated today that he believes the amendment is worthy of a vote and said that the Senate will attempt to advance the bill again week after next.

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