Last month, Senegalese Energy Minister Samuel Sarr slipped off to a conference in Paris for 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 homes and businesses to rely on generators and candles.
Senegal is hoping to do it by 2020. And the former French colony has company.
Today, South Africa's two nuclear power reactors stand alone on the continent, but by the end of the decade, that could very well change. Several less-developed African nations are speeding up plans to modernize their economies through heavy reliance on nuclear power.
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 not having.
Ten African countries pursuing nukes
Ghana's cabinet had vowed to bring a plant on line by 2018, until the new government scrapped the plans.
And Niger – the country whose bountiful uranium has powered the nuclear age abroad and funded civil war at home – was soliciting South African support for its own plant, before February's coup spiked the idea.
The energy conundrum
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 consistently provide fuel to oil- or natural-gas-fired power plants. But once a costly nuclear plant is built, the uranium costs are comparatively minor.
Western groups often push Africa to move toward wind, solar, and hydro power, but Africa's leaders are looking for significantly more firepower.
"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," says Kelvin Kemm, 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."
Fission presents its own problems, however. For one, it would double the total wattage of a grid like Kenya's – something the planning section of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) strongly warns against.
It's a fiscal challenge, too, incurring high credit costs, upfront financing, and steep maintenance costs.
'An absolutely lunatic idea'
"It is an absolutely lunatic idea," says a nuclear physicist and energy analyst for an international think tank, who asked not to be named because he didn't want to be contacted about his comments.
He calls Senegal's nuclear power project a "prestige undertaking."
Nuclear braggadocio is off the menu at Senegal's Energy Ministry, where spokesman Malick Ndaw is quick to play down the endeavor. After all, Senegal is also building wind farms, solar plants, a hydropower dam, and two coal-fired plants.
Mr. Ndaw says they'll 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 says – words that resonate with Bara Gueye, 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.
The new nuclear market
France may help finance Senegal's project. Europe's storied nuclear state is "always available to help" a former colony, Ndaw says, 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 still being developed.
"Then, China looms large on the horizon," adds Mr. 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 the deadline of Mr. Sarr, the Senegal energy minister.
"Twenty years from now, many of these countries may be ready for it," says Holger Rogner, head of the IAEA's planning section. "But you have to start now to get there."