This newspaper is a longtime proponent of nuclear plants and, in particular, of the Prairie Island nuclear plant, whose overall 25-year safety record is solid.

We've also stressed the important roles strong federal regulations and thorough inspections play in keeping nuclear power efficient, safe and reliable: An industry that involves enormous risk needs oversight.

Anyone who may have questioned the independence or value of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should feel reassured by its strong and very public words to Prairie Island nuclear plant officials last week about human error and potential dangers.

The local, dual-reactor plant, whose safety record among the nation's 100-plus reactors was second to none in the 1990s, today finds itself one of 11 flagged for substantive and cross-cutting, i.e. systemwide, problems.

We note that the plant has not violated NRC requirements. If it had, the NRC's resident inspectors, who work daily at the plant, would have reported them instead of incorporating them into the mid-year review. Also to the plant's credit, workers started addressing their problems prior to the NRC's recent report.

So how serious is being cited for cross-cutting issues?

Rarely do top NRC officials attend local review meetings. The fact that two came here Dec. 8 drives home the point that this is very serious.

The NRC's tone leads us to believe that reducing human error -- whether it stems from ignorance, nonchalance, arrogance, poor training or a general willingness to accept minor mistakes -- won't be good enough. The attitude must become one of "we're committed to eliminating human error," however impossible that may be.

Clearly, Prairie Island's new site vice president, Mark Schimmel, and his staff have their work cut out for them.

Xcel Energy owns the Prairie Island nuclear plant and is seeking to extend the federal operating licenses for another 20 years. Some people might say that a negative inspection report halfway through the process couldn't have come at a worse time. On the contrary, the report is just what the plant and the community needed to hear.

Nuclear power is relatively inexpensive, it's reliable and emits few greenhouse gases. Many local residents take these facts and the Prairie Island plant -- with its track record, tax base and many jobs -- for granted. We can't afford to do that any more than the plant workers or the NRC inspectors can.

This was a genuine warning. The plant is safe. It could and should be safer.

We're confident that will happen.