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Nuclear power is the only way for rapidly developing countries to meet their energy needs, Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, said on Thursday.

“Nuclear power is going to have to be part of the mix,” she told an audience of political and business leaders at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York on Thursday.

It was the clearest admission yet on the part of the Bush administration that the soaring demand for oil could force the spread of nuclear power to developing countries, despite the possible security risks.

Ms Rice said the unparalleled competition for energy resources meant that countries had to seek alternatives sources: “It's quite clear we are too dependent on hydrocarbons.”

While acknowledging that this approach posed serious potential problems of nuclear proliferation - “we have a big challenge” - she said the options for diversification that were available to developed countries were lacking in poorer nations.

“I don't think solar and wind are going to [be enough]. We are going to have to find a way to harness all energy supplies - that includes civilian nuclear power.”

The US has already started down this path - the government recently extended an offer of co-operation on nuclear energy to India.

But calls for an expansion of civilian nuclear power in developing countries may run into problems, given the US's current disputes with Iran and North Korea over proliferation. China recently backed North Korea, despite international concerns over its weapon-building.

Bill Clinton, the former president of the US, said on Thursday he agreed with Ms Rice's analysis. However, he also called for energy conservation measures as a way of easing the demand for oil.

Tony Blair, UK prime minister, said any attempt to tackle climate change - one of the four key issues at the Clinton summit - had to take into account the economic reality. “The truth is that no country is going to cut its growth or consumption in the light of a long-term environmental problem,” he said

He also appeared gloomy about the prospects for the UN-brokered Kyoto treaty on climate change when its current provisions expire in 2012. The US has refused to ratify the treaty, which requires developed countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions.

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