Fiscal restraint in government is a rare and wonderful thing.

So when some department or commission or board halts a program in midstream, saying going forward would be a waste of taxpayer money, a natural reaction is to applaud the move.

But there are things worth spending money and time on. One is examining the safety of nuclear power plants.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission was wrong to announce recently it is ending its study of cancer risks near seven plants, including Oyster Creek Generating Station in Lacey Township.

The NRC hired the National Academy of Sciences to perform the review. Researchers completed the first phase in 2012 and recommended a second phase, which included a pilot study of cancer mortality rates for all age groups, down to the census-tract level, surrounding the seven selected plants. They have spent $1.5 million so far.

But the NRC said the additional cost and time needed - another $8 million and at least three years - were prohibitively high.

"We're balancing the desire to provide updated answers on cancer risk with our responsibility to use congressionally provided funds as wisely as possible," the NRC said in a statement.

Officials also said any radioactive releases that occur during normal operations are "too small to cause observable increases in cancer risk near the facilities."

Hopefully, that is true. But it's a conclusion that needs to be backed up by close and continuing review. The study is needed to add depth to the NRC's routine tests of environmental samples near the power facilities.

Nuclear energy has never been a popular alternative in the U.S., but oil, coal and natural gas won't last forever, and there is a long way to go before solar or wind power can be relied on for the bulk of the country's energy needs.

That makes it important to know as much as possible about nuclear power, particularly how dangerous it is.

The NRC program was intended as a follow-up to a 1990 review by the National Cancer Institute that said evidence did not show an excessive occurrence of cancer around 52 nuclear power plants.

But a lot has changed since 1990 - plants have gotten older, the ability to analyze data has grown exponentially. There is a definite need to make sure that existing and any future nuclear plants are as safe as possible.

In announcing the end of its own study, the NRC noted that commissioning an update to the National Cancer Institute's report might be a more cost-effective option. But that certainly would not come free of cost for the government and would likely require duplication of the efforts already expended. That's no way to run a fiscally responsible government.

Critics of nuclear power were quick to question the NRC's decision, saying that ending the study means regulators are hiding something.

But this is not a question of what is being hidden, rather a case of what we need to learn. The NRC should find a way to complete its study within the constraints of its $1 billion annual budget.

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