A device physics model has been developed for radial p-n junction nanorod solar cells, in which densely packed nanorods, each having a p-n junction in the radial direction, are oriented with the rod axis parallel to the incident light direction. High-aspect-ratio (length/diameter) nanorods allow the use of a sufficient thickness of material to obtain good optical absorption while simultaneously providing short collection lengths for excited carriers in a direction normal to the light absorption. The short collection lengths facilitate the efficient collection of photogenerated carriers in materials with low minority-carrier diffusion lengths. The modeling indicates that the design of the radial p-n junction nanorod device should provide large improvements in efficiency relative to a conventional planar geometry p-n junction solar cell, provided that two conditions are satisfied: (1) In a planar solar cell made from the same absorber material, the diffusion length of minority carriers must be too low to allow for extraction of most of the light-generated carriers in the absorber thickness needed to obtain full light absorption. (2) The rate of carrier recombination in the depletion region must not be too large (for silicon this means that the carrier lifetimes in the depletion region must be longer than ∼10 ns). If only condition (1) is satisfied, the modeling indicates that the radial cell design will offer only modest improvements in efficiency relative to a conventional planar cell design. Application to Si and GaAs nanorod solar cells is also discussed in detail.