The surest indication of whether someone is truly serious about dealing with global warming is their attitude toward nuclear power.

If someone never says anything but that we must reduce carbon dioxide output, they’re not serious. If they are upfront about nuclear power playing a major role in switching from fossil fuels, they are. This is how one separates the dilettante environmentalists from those serious about the subject.

By that measure, the Tennessee Valley Authority is serious about dealing with climate change.

Earlier this month, TVA announced it had completed a $475 million upgrade at Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Limestone County, the utility’s oldest nuclear power plant. The modifications to the plant’s reactors are intended to help TVA shift away from carbon-spewing coal-fired power plants.

After the upgrades, Browns Ferry expanded service to almost 300,000 more homes.

CEO Jeff Lyash told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that, combined with increased solar power use, nuclear power will help TVA reduce carbon emissions by 70% of 2005 levels by 2030.

Nuclear power, not solar, will make up the bulk of that power generation, and TVA’s 20-year plan still has about 15% of its power generation coming from coal and 20% from natural gas.

But if getting serious about global warming requires more nuclear power, then we also must remain serious about nuclear safety.

Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant has been plagued with safety issues major and minor, especially fire safety issues. That includes, most recently, a fire last year that started in a system control panel for the Unit 3 reactor. The fire was not near the reactor itself and did not shut down operations, but it is part of a pattern of small incidents.

A small incident can become a large one, as the March 22, 1975, fire at Browns Ferry demonstrates.

That fire was caused by, of all things, a candle, which workers were using to check for air leaks.

We need nuclear power, but we have to make sure we are taking all of the proper precautions. Wind, solar and hydroelectric, aren’t going to do the job of weaning America off fossil fuels by themselves. TVA must make sure that it’s up to the task of providing nuclear power safely, even as it touts its success in moving to nuclear from coal.

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