World Bank and Nukes? Much Ado about Nothing

December 3, 2013 – The World Bank and the United Nations last month held a news conference to tout their plan to raise big bucks — $600 billion or so — for electrification in developing countries (and energy efficiency in the developed world, although that’s a dubious proposition). When the bank’s Jim Yong Kim and the UN’s Ban Ki-moon held a press conference to discuss their initiative, the takeaway for much of the media was that the World Bank was eschewing investments in nuclear power

“We don’t do nuclear energy,” Kim, the World Bank president, told reporters in New York, “The World Bank Group does not engage in providing support for nuclear power. We think that this is an extremely difficult conversation that every country is continuing to have.”

That anodyne pronouncement drew lots of media attention. The French news service AFP headlined its story: “World Bank says no money for nuclear power.” Grist, one of the U.S. left’s favorite online sites, headlined its story: “World Bank says no to nuclear as it lays out universal energy plan.” The Grist story included a typical graphic of a nuclear warning icon and a skull-and-crossbones. Grist commented, “That decision could frustrate a handful of leading climate scientists, including James Hansen, who recently called for more investment in nuclear power to help fight global warming. But it will please many other environmentalists, who point to the risks and high costs of nuclear power.”

But this take on Kim’s comments is entirely off the mark. The World Bank has only ever made one investment in nuclear power, in Italy in 1959. Since then, a generally bad experience, the bank has stayed away from atomic energy. Kim was completely accurate that the bank doesn’t “do nuclear energy.” Not in the last 55 years, at least. Credit the CleanTechnica website for highlighting the vacuity of the breathless stories.

The World Bank’s archive recounts the bank’s sole nuclear venture: “On September 16, 1959, the Bank made a loan equivalent to $40 million for the construction of a 150,000 kilowatt atomic power plant in Italy (Loan 0235). This was Italy’s first nuclear power plant, and the Bank’s loan financed almost two-thirds of the cost of construction. The project also included civil works, a substation and about 60 miles of transmission lines.”

According to the archive, “The plant began operation in 1964. In August 1978 it was shut down due to damage to one of the two secondary steam generators. In March 1982 the Italian Electricity Generating Board declared the plant to be out of service.”

Last June, the bank, bolstered by support from the White House, announced it would no longer fund coal projects. Kim said at the time that the bank would push low-carbon energy resources: hydro, wind, solar and geothermal. According to the Washington Post, the last major coal project that got World Bank financing was in South Africa in 2010.

The bank and the UN at the end of December announced “a concerted effort by governments, international agencies, civil society and private sector to mobilize financing to deliver universal access to modern energy services such as lighting, clean cooking solutions and power for productive purposes in developing countries, as well as scaled-up energy efficiency, especially in the world’s highest-energy consuming countries.” Working through the joint Sustainable Energy for All Initiative, they aim to raise big bucks for their goals and held the press conference to discuss the program

But the bank and the UN may discover reluctance in developing countries for allegedly-green energy in favor of more conventional technologies with a bigger energy bang for the investment buck. Kenya is searching for energy density.

Last month, Kenya said it will sign no new contracts for wind and solar electricity projects until 2017 in order to focus power from coal, LNG, and geothermal. Bloomberg reported, “The East African government plans to add at least 5,500 megawatts of power supply in the 40 months from September, more than quadrupling output from current installed capacity of about 1,700 megawatts mainly from rain-fed hydropower plants.” Kenya Power Ltd., the country’s only electric utility, has 2.2 million customers in a country with a population of 43 million.