Time to end the World Bank’s nuclear blind spot

Guest Author
A man covers his eyes so that he can't see a nuclear power plant nearby. Illustration with a red background.
Illustration by Nadya Nickels.

Every credible vision of a high-energy, low-carbon future includes a meaningful role for nuclear power.

That’s why last year more than two dozen countries pledged to triple nuclear power by 2030 as an essential step to meeting their goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And that’s why more than 50 countries — rich and poor, from every continent — have taken concrete steps to include nuclear power in their energy mix by 2050 as a way to tackle carbon emissions while generating jobs and economic growth.

Despite growing interest in nuclear technology, the leading international development agency, the World Bank, refuses to even talk about it.

The bank has made only one nuclear-related loan, for a nuclear power plant in Italy in 1959. The retreat since then has, according to my conversations with staff and multiple members of the board, stemmed from concerns over nuclear safety combined with ideological opposition from a small handful of powerful shareholders within the bank. The World Bank’s latest energy policy acknowledges nuclear will be important for the future of many countries but explains the organization has no nuclear expertise and will, by choice, not add any.

Yet today, the World Bank’s absence on nuclear power could hold many countries back from building out this essential technology — and, ironically, slow the acceptance of important safety and governance standards. Luckily, there’s a simple step to get the bank back on track.

Ignorance is costly

The World Bank’s willful blindness has many downsides. First, the policy limits the low-carbon energy options for its client countries — all of whom need to build vast new energy systems to meet their economic development goals. The bank is both a financier of infrastructure and also a major advisor on all aspects of infrastructure for borrowing countries. The bank’s refusal to even discuss nuclear power creates an enormous gap in countries’ abilities to assess their energy plans — and how nuclear technology may fit (or not).

The World Bank’s prohibition also creates an unnecessary market barrier for one of the most promising clean energy technologies. Many different advanced nuclear models will reach the demonstration phase in the next few years and reach the commercial market soon after. These new designs will be smaller, safer and more flexible, which makes them especially attractive in emerging markets.

Faster installation, easier fuel management and fit-for-size features are ideally suited for generating clean electricity, powering mining operations and running data centers. The World Bank taboo, which is copied by many other development agencies, has a suffocating effect on the technology’s potential.

Lastly, the World Bank’s total absence from nuclear power is an unnecessary gift to Russia and China. Those countries are aggressively marketing their state-owned nuclear models and have signed nuclear partnerships with Bangladesh, Nigeria, Egypt, Brazil and at least 10 additional countries.

Finalized deals would lock countries into dependency on Russia and China for nuclear fuel for decades, creating economic risks and serious long-term energy security vulnerabilities. One of the World Bank’s greatest strengths is helping countries make sound investment decisions. Its nuclear disengagement leaves many countries negotiating opaque deals in smoky back rooms, with none of the usual safety or governance guardrails.

Nuclear technology is about equity

An unfortunate aspect of the World Bank policy is that it represents the view of a tiny minority. At least 100 of the bank’s shareholders have active nuclear programs or have indicated an openness to the technology. Opposition comes from, at most, eight countries, all wealthy European nations plus Australia. Trying to deny this technology to the rest of humanity seems both unwise and unfair.

The tide is starting to turn. The urgency of climate change combined with the obvious need for reliable low-carbon power for economic growth is creating positive momentum.

The pledge to triple nuclear power included an explicit call for the World Bank to consider the technology. The United States Congress is increasingly pressuring the U.S. Treasury to push the World Bank and other multilaterals to change, while parts of the U.S. administration (notably the U.S. Energy and State Departments) are openly pro-nuclear. France, India, Jamaica, Poland, Britain, Ghana, Canada and many others are becoming more vocal.

Start with learning

The World Bank’s board is unlikely to want this policy divide to become a public fight. Fortunately, a simple, uncontroversial first step could show an evidence-based way forward: create an analytical team at the World Bank to better understand nuclear technology. Such a unit would build internal expertise while allowing the bank to better advise its clients on their energy options. It would also, crucially, help to ensure growing global nuclear markets are safe and transparent by helping countries apply global standards.

The U.S. and other shareholders could instigate this via a trust fund that would require neither a major policy change nor a board vote. Whether the World Bank opted to finance nuclear projects in the future is a question that could be answered later based on demand from borrowing countries.

The World Bank was created first to rebuild post-war Europe and then to promote development in the poorest nations. With a new dual mandate to eradicate poverty and reduce the impact of climate change, it’s past time to end the World Bank’s nuclear blind spot.