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Nuclear site initiative is good, but gaps remain

President Barack Obama is trying to revive the U.S. nuclear industry with $8.1 billion in federal loan guarantees for two reactors in Georgia. Investment in nuclear power dried up after the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania.

Since then other nations have pressed forward with nuclear power, but not without government help.

The sheer cost and long lag time between startup and production make nuclear plants unattractive to private investors. But as the nation weans itself from carbon-based sources of energy, it will need more than wind, water and solar.

Nuclear power would provide a source that would be available at the flip of a switch without reliance on the vagaries of weather.

As the president noted, just one of the Georgia plants could cut carbon emissions by 16 million tons a year when compared with a coal-powered plant of the same size.

However, the idea of nuclear power and the reality of producing it are different matters.

First, the plants are very expensive, running into the billions. And cost overruns and project delays are common. Because safety is paramount, such plants need to be carefully designed and monitored.

To meet its targets for reductions in greenhouse gases, the U.S. must produce 180 reactors by 2050. That is a huge budgetary commitment, and the administration cannot count on the private sector to take over without significant incentives.

Second, there need to be places to deposit nuclear waste. The Obama administration does not have a good answer for this, especially after giving up on Yucca Mountain as a repository.

The site beneath an isolated Nevada mountain range has been the focus of debate for a very long time. The Hanford Nuclear Reservation was hoping to ship its waste there, but is now stuck.

Tri-City leaders recently delivered a letter to the U.S. Energy Department accusing the administration of violating the Nuclear Waste Policy Act by abandoning Yucca Mountain. Without a repository, the Tri-Party Agreement to clean up Hanford is also at risk. Multiple lawsuits are a distinct possibility.

About one-fifth of the nation’s power is produced by nuclear plants. No major accidents have occurred in three decades.

But Obama’s plan leaves out critical details. Until he fills in the blanks, the nation should be wary.

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