Nuclear Energy For Developing Countries

Navid Chowdhury
March 22, 2012

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2012


Access to energy is regarded as the basic requirement for economic growth. And yet 1.5 billion people in the world today don't have access to the basic form of energy, electricity. [1] Almost all of that population lives in the developing countries. As these countries grow (both in population and economically) the demand for energy keeps growing and unless immediate solutions are sought there then the current energy shortage in these countries will turn acute. Under these circumstances, recently 50 non-OECD countries approached IEA with plans to install nuclear reactors in their own countries. Some of those countries had already started talks with current nuclear-able countries like Japan to purchase the technology required to install their first nuclear reactors.

Why Nuclear

It is the most reliable and clean source of energy for any emerging economy under current scenario. Although there are other safer and cleaner options like wind and solar but the battery technology is still at a stage which makes the later options less practical on a large scale. Nuclear reactors can provide safe baseload power on a large scale while taking the dependence away from oil and gas. It also does not have the intermittency problem that plagues most of the frontline renewable energy technologies we know of.

Besides the technological aspect, it also offers the host country the independence and the energy security that is essential for the economic and political stability of the country. The recent protest in Nigeria is an unfortunate example of how volatility of fuel price could lead to a major political breakdown and subsequently affect the economic growth of the country. [2] Nuclear power could remove that volatility.

Energy security would also allow countries to be more sovereign is its decision making. Developing countries like Bangladesh quiet often has to make the very unpopular decision to raise fuel price (by cutting down subsidy) at the request of IMF who holds the key to most forms of aid provided to developing countries. [3] Removing dependence on fossil fuel would remove Bangladesh from such obligations set by IMF.

The Challenges of Nuclear

There are as many challenges (if not more) of installing nuclear reactors as there are benefits. The biggest challenge is the fear that lies in the heart of every nation: the potential to use nuclear technology used for civil power generation for building nuclear weapons. Nuclear reactors require enriched uranium to function and if the enrichment plans producing the fuel for the reactors are devoted to producing uranium with a high degree of enrichment (about 80 %) then that product could easily be used to make nuclear weapons. [4] This fear led to the formation of NPT (nuclear non-proliferation treaty), the body that overlooks and tries to maintain peaceful use of nuclear technology across the world. The risk doubles when we start to consider nuclear reactors in developing countries, as the weaker political system and relaxed policing increases the risk of nuclear technology falling into the wrong hands.

Besides the fear of nuclear weapons, there is also the economical obstacle that could keep most developing countries from installing their first nuclear reactor. Over time (usually 30 years) the cost of power generated through nuclear reactors depreciates enough to compete with traditional coal/gas based electricity, but it still requires a huge upfront capital cost that most developing countries might not be able to afford. [5] According to experts, countries with GDP below $50 billion dollars would not be able to install a nuclear plant (which usually cost a few billion dollars) in the near future. [4] The size of the national electric grid is also a determining factor in deciding if nuclear reactors would be suitable and some developing nations don't meet the minimum requirement of a 10 Gigawatt size electric grid.

The Verdict

Nuclear power plants could be the answer to the call for many who are deprived of reliable access to energy but there are still issues with it that needs to be dealt with before some countries can start building their first nuclear power plants. China and India could be great examples in some ways for many developing countries who wish to build nuclear power plants but the fact that both the countries used their opportunity to arm themselves with nuclear weapon is also a cause for concern for most nuclear-able countries who are on the fence on this issue. It is no doubt the right of every nation to build nuclear power plants for peaceful purposes like power generation (considering they have the means to do so) but if we have learnt anything from history it is that if given the opportunity some countries will undoubtedly take the chance to arm themselves with nuclear weapon. Nuclear weapon is regarded as the ticket to the big boys club when it comes to the international arena and there is no reason why any developing nation would want to miss out on that chance. So unless IEA can come up with a foolproof innovative way to monitor uranium enrichment plants or the nuclear disarmament campaign achieves its goal, it would be a tough decision to allow developing nations to build their first nuclear power plants.

© Navid Chowdhury. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] N. Gronewold, "One Quarter Of World's Population Lacks Electricity," Scientific American, 24 Nov 09.

[2] S. Busari, "What Is Behind Nigeria Fuel Protests?," CNN, 13 Jan 12.

[3] R. Paul, "Bangladesh Raises Fuel Prices to Cut Subsidy," Reuters, 30 Dec 11.

[4] J. Goldemberg, "Nuclear Energy in Developing Countries," Daedalus 138, No. 4, 71 (2009).

[5] B. Van der Zwaan, "Some Perspectives on the Prospects for Nuclear Energy in the Developing World and Asia," in International Seminar on Nuclear War and Planetary Emergencies, 30th Session, ed. by R. C. Ragaini (World Scientific, 2004), p. 326.