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The Exelon Byron Nuclear Generating Stations running at full capacity 14 May, 2007 in Byron, Illinois, is one of 17 nuclear reactors at 10 sites in three US states. In the US, nuclear operators have focused on improving safety and efficiency at existing plants.

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday Utah "ought not to be afraid" of considering a nuclear power plant in the state.

But there are still many questions that would need to be answered before going forward, including whether the state would accept the high-level waste produced, the governor said during the taping of his monthly press conference on KUED Channel 7.

His comments came the morning after he called for a "substantive debate" on whether there is a place for nuclear energy in Utah in his annual State of the State address Wednesday.

Utah's role in any plant would be regulatory, he said.

"I don't think the state is going to start proposing a nuclear power plant. We're not going to construct one and run one," he said. "But we certainly have a role to play when it comes to the regulation."

Such a plant is planned just outside of Green River in Emery County on a swath of land that is part of an industrial development park.

Proposed by Blue Castle Holdings, of which former state House Rep. Aaron Tilton is president and chief executive officer, the project hinges on controversial water rights application that involves acquiring a combined 53,600 acre feet of water from a pair of water conservancy districts.

Hearings and protest periods were held last year and the Division of Water Rights has yet to give the water allocation its nod, said John Mann, assistant state engineer for applications and records.

"It's been a controversial issue," he said, noting the project has the support of local officials hungry to provide jobs for residents and the criticism of environmental groups that contend the Colorado River system is already over-allocated.

The two-unit nuclear power project would have the capacity for 3,000 megawatts and feature spent fuel storage facilities on site that Tilton has said would provide for more than 100 years of safe storage.

HEAL Utah's executive director Christopher Thomas said he is dismayed at Herbert's remarks.

Aside from its "unreasonable demands for Utah's precious water," Thomas said he doubted the power plant would fly in a fiscal climate full of Utahns skeptical of taking out billion dollar loans to finance the venture.

"Taxpayers get stuck with the risks, while Utahns get stuck with high-level nuclear waste we spent a decade fighting to keep out," Thomas said.

But Herbert stressed a key consideration would be whether such a plant would be built to export electricity out of state.

While Utahns have long been opposed to disposing of high-level nuclear waste in the state, he said that might be different if the power produced here stayed here for Utahns.

"The reason we are so adamant in opposition to higher levels of nuclear waste, rather than the low-level Class A waste we now take, is because it's produced someplace else," he said. "Most of us believe that if it is produced there, it ought to stay there."

If a nuclear power plant in Utah was producing power for the state, the governor said, "it's probably more acceptable to keep the spent rods, the higher levels of nuclear waste, here in Utah. But if we're just going to export the nuclear power, it's probably not as acceptable to keep the waste here."

Calls to Blue Castle were not returned Thursday, but Tilton has said the plant will help meet the need of increased energy demands  in the West, and that the company has been in discussions with 15 utility groups. It remains unclear if any of the electricity generated would stay in Utah.

Herbert said what is important now is to start talking about the issue. "I don't know all the answers to the questions," he said. "If we're serious about having affordable energy and clear air and cleaner energy production, nuclear energy has got to be something we discuss."

He said he's not certain whether Utah has a role to play. "It's just time for us to have the discussion and we ought not to be afraid of that."

In the last legislative session, Herbert signed off on a measure that provides up to a 100 percent credit on state taxes paid by a nuclear power plant for 20 years of its operation.