DAKAR, Senegal — Last month, Senegalese Energy Minister Samuel Sarr slipped off to a conference in Paris to make an extraordinary announcement: His country is hoping to enrich uranium and build shimmering Homer Simpson-style cooling towers over a landscape where erratic power outages have long forced homeowners and businesses to rely on generators and candles.
Senegal is hoping to do it by 2020, and the former French colony in West Africa isn't alone.
South Africa's two nuclear power reactors are the only ones on the continent now, but that could change by the end of the decade. Several less-developed African nations are accelerating plans to modernize their economies through heavy reliance on nuclear power:
- In February, Nigerian authorities pursued talks with Iran for an exchange of nuclear know-how.
Beyond transformers and electrical grids, however, nuclear power requires the less-tangible infrastructure of workplace safety regulation, government oversight, anticorruption measures, stable governance and antiterrorism controls — all things that many African nations are infamous for lacking.
"It is not a technical challenge," said Igor Khripunov, associate director for the Center for International Trade and Security in Athens, Ga. "Building nuclear power is a nationwide challenge."
For Africa, energy is not a problem easily solved. Much of the continent lacks the rail infrastructure or the regional integration to haul in coal or the purchasing power to by oil or natural gas. Once a costly nuclear plant is built, however, the uranium costs are comparatively minor.
Western groups often push Africa to move toward wind, solar and hydropower, but Africa's leaders are looking for significantly more firepower than those can now provide.
"I think it's immoral for certain first-world countries to propose wind and solar solutions to Africa as if they're going to be industrially important," said Kelvin Kemm, the CEO of a South African energy consultancy. "Imagine losing 10 percent of your country's power if it doesn't rain. There's no modern economy that can look toward developing on the basis of that."
Nuclear fission presents its own problems, however. For one, it would double the total wattage of a grid such as Kenya's — something the planning section of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) strongly warns against.
It's expensive, too, incurring high credit costs, upfront financing and steep maintenance costs.
At Senegal's Energy Ministry, spokesman Malick Ndaw is quick to play down the endeavor. After all, he said, Senegal is also building wind farms, solar plants, a hydropower dam, and two coal-fired plants.
Ndaw said they'd need them all — plus the nuclear plant — to prevent a lack of power from crippling the country's development.
"All of our industries are in an energy crunch, without exception," he said, words that resonate with Bara Gueye, the chief engineer for Senegal's Ciments du Sahel. Like many African industrialists, the cement manufacturer has to provide his own electricity, which explains why, according to industry analysts, energy prices gobble up 15 to 20 percent of manufacturing costs, inviting cheaper imports.
France may help finance Senegal's project. Europe's storied nuclear state is "always available to help" a former colony, Ndaw said, though he won't say how.
South Korea is exporting more nuclear technology, as is Japan. Russian designs for offshore nuclear plants may prove compelling for African countries. So, too, may South Africa's pebble bed reactors, small-scale nuclear plants that are still being developed.
"Then, China looms large on the horizon," added Khripunov of the Center for International Trade and Security.
With so many new players competing, analysts say Africa may become the growth market for nuclear power exporters — even if not by Sarr, the Senegal energy minister's deadline.
"Twenty years from now, many of these countries may be ready for it," said Holger Rogner, the head of the IAEA's planning section. "But you have to start now to get there."
(Hinshaw is a Christian Science Monitor correspondent.)