03/27/2012 - 10:59

The developing world has better options than nuclear energy

In discussions about nuclear energy, whether in the developing world or in industrial countries, the topics that generally dominate are cost, waste disposal, risk of accident, and weapons proliferation. This Roundtable introduces an additional dimension to the nuclear-power conversation: developing countries' need for economic development and the energy that such development requires.

In Latin America, where I live and work as an energy analyst, nuclear energy is not very widespread. Only a small fraction of the electricity generated in the region is nuclear, and only three countries -- Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico -- operate nuclear power plants. In Brazil, Latin America's biggest energy consumer, nuclear power provides only about 2.7 percent of the domestic electricity supply. Hydropower, meanwhile, accounts for about 74 percent of domestic electricity production, while biofuels and wind play an increasing role as well.

But energy demands will only grow over time in Latin America and elsewhere in the developing world, and nuclear power's potential to help meet that growing demand should at least be considered in certain cases. Still, determining whether nuclear energy makes sense in the developing world requires carefully examining the relationship between energy and economic development. More specifically, it requires asking how much electricity is really required for economic development.

More than money. A provisional answer to this question might come from distinguishing between two types of developing countries -- low-income nations and middle-income nations, as classified by the World Bank on the basis of gross national income per capita. In low-income countries, like Cambodia for example, where a large proportion of the population lives in rural areas, electricity is required chiefly to satisfy basic needs in lighting, health services, education, and so on. In these countries, per capita, about 50 to 100 kilowatt hours are an adequate annual supply of electricity (depending on differences in climate, culture, and so forth). In middle-income developing countries, like Brazil, where certain segments of the population enjoy only limited access to modern electricity services but other segments exhibit consumption patterns very similar to those in industrialized countries, electricity use ranges from 1,000 to 2,000 kilowatt hours per capita per year.

This information is useful, but any approach that categorizes countries according to their income levels alone is perhaps too narrow for this Roundtable. A better tool for current purposes is provided by the United Nations' Human Development Index, which assesses not only countries' incomes but also their life expectancies and education levels. Research constructed around this index has revealed surprising relationships between electricity use and human welfare.

For example, several studies have shown that human welfare tends to improve rapidly as societies advance from low to modest levels of commercial energy consumption, but that welfare does not improve very much as energy consumption increases further. Moreover, as shown in a comprehensive data analysis published in 2009, the amount of energy required for improvements in human welfare has decreased significantly over time. This suggests that improvements in human welfare do not require any fixed quantity of energy.

Don't need it, don't want it. For low-income countries, then, nuclear power hardly seems an appropriate supply choice. In the short term, these countries' energy needs are not large enough to justify the adoption of nuclear power; in the medium term, these nations can achieve significant, necessary improvements in the welfare of their people without massive increases in electricity supply. Simply put, nuclear energy is far too costly and centralized for them. Middle-income countries, however, with their expanding urban populations and growing industrial sectors and infrastructure bases, might indeed be candidates for nuclear power.

But even middle-income countries must consider the fact that nuclear energy is not only capital-intensive but also requires sophisticated technical, industrial, and institutional capabilities if plants are to be operated safely and reliably. Very few developing countries can afford to maintain the infrastructure necessary for all this. To be sure, safety standards for nuclear energy have become stricter in the industrialized world over the years and rich nations have made large investments in safer facilities. For most developing countries, however, adopting new generations of reactors would be prohibitively expensive and might only exacerbate these countries' technological -- and economic -- dependence on advanced nations (unless they also choose to become involved in the nuclear industry's production chain).

In any event, the planning of an energy system should not be reduced to a discussion of supply sources; energy systems are composed of complex subsystems such as primary energy resources, conversion technologies, and final energy services. Hence, developing countries making choices about their energy futures must consider the full spectrum of energy technologies available to them, from primary sources and related conversion processes all the way through to final services. Developing countries must also assess the complete social and environmental costs of putting into place secure and reliable energy systems, costs that include the public institutions necessary to plan, regulate, and supervise technologies and resources over their entire life cycles.

Intriguing alternatives to nuclear power are emerging around the world as new choices in energy technology increasingly become available. Indeed, opportunities to integrate renewable energy sources into existing and future energy grids are becoming ever more feasible due to advances in material technologies; in storage, transmission, and distribution methods; and in end-use energy systems.

As low- and middle-income developing countries plan their energy futures, they have the opportunity to leapfrog past existing technologies to different kinds of energy systems -- more flexible systems that integrate distributed sources and make use of smart meters and smart-grid technologies. Such leapfrogging would see developing countries build zero-energy buildings, gain greater efficiency in everything from electrical appliances to industrial processes, and generally establish urban infrastructures that are less energy-intensive. Such a path would allow developing countries to advance their technological and industrial capacities without introducing the proliferation and public health risks that nuclear power poses.

Decision-making processes in the energy realm must, of course, weigh issues such as cost and waste management. But developing countries must also take into account how much energy is really required to meet their economic and human-welfare goals -- and must decide whether to advance to an economy based on lower energy intensity.