Have no fear for atomic energy

Bob Marley spoke these words in his famous "Redemption Song" which was recorded near the end of his life. He was most likely referring to the fact that the Almighty wouldn't let mere mortals decide fate through the then-emerging atomic energy used for electricity and, of course, weapons.

But he may have been on to something without knowing it.

I think the great man was right. We need not fear atomic energy. Sure, radiation has the potential to cause great harm, and the element plutonium is downright deadly if properly exploited with bad intentions.

We need to put things in perspective, though.

Nuclear energy has provided clean electricity for roughly half a century - clean in the sense of greenhouse gas emissions, which might be our biggest threat at the moment. Without nuclear energy the atmospheric CO2 reading would have hit 400 ppm sooner than it did at an observatory in Hawaii not too long ago. And the current way towards zero carbon energy is to electrify everything while producing electricity from non-emitting sources such as wind, solar, wave, hydro - and nuclear. Renewables are increasing, which is good, but they currently make up nowhere near 100% of generation - and capacity will have to increase at least 3X to support widespread electrification. It would seem that nuclear power is a great fit for solving the carbon problem while continuing to develop around the world.

But wait! What about the waste? I know, nobody likes radiation (except for when it's beneficial, like in medicinal purposes, to heat our food quickly, or to give us a nice tan). How can we deal with the massive amounts of nuclear waste that shove radiation into our ecosystems throughout the world. 

Well, a few things on that:

-In the history of nuclear electrical generation there have been 33 incidents worldwide, with less fatalities from direct exposure to the accidents (including Chernobyl and Fukishima) than any other energy generation method. This technically makes nuclear energy the safest (technically) form of electricity generated (technically, though I doubt many people will care about this technicality).

-All nuclear waste ever created, worldwide, would fit within a single American football stadium stacked a few meters high. The sheer amount of waste is much smaller than most people suspect.

-If you swam in a cooling pool that contained spent uranium rods (aka nuclear waste), you would receive less radiation than walking around your neighbourhood. Water is such an excellent radiation shield that the few meters of H2O separating you from the rods would block essentially all harm from below while shielding from everyday background radiation from above.

-Nuclear energy is the only sector that takes responsibility for its waste. All other forms of polluting energy, though less harmful in acute doses, release their waste into the ecosystem while all spent nuclear fuel is accounted for at all times, lest disaster strike!

-The waste that does remain carefully stored and seriously guarded still poses a threat because the half-life is so long it will be around forever. However, new technology is on the cusp of making commercially available reactors that run on spent fuel. That basically means electricity could be generated from waste while depleting radioactivity in the process. 

If that last endeavor comes to fruition the wise man would be undoubtedly correct.  

There would be no need to fear atomic energy if we burned the bad stuff and made more energy.