Energy for Growth Hub
Blog Jun 21, 2023

Tyranny of the (Anti-Nuclear) Minority at the World Bank

Who's really against nuclear power? Here are the numbers.
Future of Energy Tech

This post also appeared in Todd’s Substack Eat More Electrons.

The World Bank is arguably the most influential organization in development ideas and practice. The Bank has its nose in every aspect of infrastructure planning, procurement, and finance in its client countries. That’s exactly why major rich-country shareholders, notably the US and Germany, are pushing it hard to scale its investment in fighting climate change.

But the Bank has a glaring blindspot: nuclear power.

Nuclear power provides 10% of the world’s electricity and more than one quarter of all low-carbon power. Since a growing number of countries are actively planning for nuclear technology in their future energy mix, it might be logical for the Bank to get up to speed. But no. By deliberate choice, it will not fund, analyze, or even discuss the technology. The Energy Policy says explicitly:

… the WBG will not finance nuclear power generation or provide specific technical assistance for its assessment and development because safety of nuclear facilities and non-proliferation are not in the WBG’s areas of expertise, nor will the WBG build internal capacity in matters related to nuclear power generation.

So, “we don’t know about it and we refuse to learn.”

Where does such a hard anti-nuclear line come from?

The Bank did finance one nuclear power plant, in Italy in 1959. The current policy seems driven by a mix of legacy opposition, bureaucratic inertia, and adamant refusal to even consider a change from a hardcore set of shareholders. But who?

We examined the nuclear stances of all 155 World Bank shareholders with a population of at least one million. Here’s our tally:

To arrive at this, we found:

  • 50 countries either already operate nuclear power, or are taking concrete and active steps toward being able to adopt the technology this decade (Coded green or light green in our readiness map; methodology is here);
  • 50 more have taken clear constructive steps in the nuclear sector signaling their interest (coded yellow);
  • 47 are likely neutral where we could find no discernable nuclear policy for or against;
  • Just eight, representing less than 12% of the Bank’s weighted votes and less than 3% of the world’s population, have publicly stated they oppose nuclear power or are actively exclusive of nuclear in their own energy systems.
  • An additional 34 countries that are World Bank members with a combined 2% of the vote but with populations under 1 million are not included in our analysis, though most would likely be neutral.

Opposition to nuclear power is a bit rich

So 100 countries representing more than 80% of the World Bank’s voting power have a direct demonstrable interest in nuclear power. Just eight are actively opposed: Germany, Portugal, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, Ireland, and Australia.

What do these eight countries have in common?

  • All rich
  • All already high-energy consumers
  • None reliant on borrowing or technical input from the World Bank.

Might it be time to at least consider a change? 

If the Bank really is going to play a bigger role in decarbonizing power systems and most of its borrowing clients are actively considering nuclear power, isn’t it time for the Bank to revisit its know-nothing policy? The former US board representative at the World Bank and a former commissioner at the US Nuclear Regulatory Agency, DJ Nordquist and Jeffrey Merrifield, recently argued powerfully for why the World Bank needs to pull its head out of the sand. Todd has also explained why he agrees. ClearPath’s Rich Powell, in a recent House Financial Services hearing, called for an initial step of launching a new technology trust fund to build internal capacity at the Bank. Such a step seems like the least the Bank could do.

At the end of the day, eight rich countries — who are very free to design and self-finance their own energy futures — should probably not be allowed to obstruct the expansion of a promising clean energy technology supported by 100 members. Of course, not all 100 would want to bother fighting the Germans over this issue at the Bank, especially those who may be counting on Germany for other support. But if the World Bank is really going to be a climate leader, it’s time for a core set of shareholders to start pushing for the end of the technology tyranny of a tiny minority.