Sub-Saharan dilemma: Food vs. fuel or radioactive waste?

Or both? In Senegal, fossil fuel shortages are forcing government leaders to explore every option.

Published October 23, 2007 9:35PM (EDT)

Senegal has a Minister of Biofuels and Renewable Energy. His name is Christian Sina Diatta and he may be the first politician on the entire planet to hold such a title. And why not? Senegal is a county, says Diatta, that has "no petroleum and coal resources whatsoever, and only a tiny bit of natural gas."

So why did he spend large portions of an interview published in a Senegalese newspaper discussing Senegal's plans for nuclear energy?

The answer hinges on more than just Senegal's traditional relationship with its former colonial ruler, France, whose president, Nicholas Sarkozy, is adamant that "nuclear power is the energy of the future." Senegal's energy woes are dire. Nuclear power, almost by default, enters the equation.

As such, Senegal's path may prefigure the challenges that will face more affluent sectors of the world, should the cost of fossil fuels continue their upward path. At the moment, $90 dollar a barrel oil doesn't appear to be creating an undue drag on rich country economies, but in poorer nations such as Senegal, the hike in costs over the past three years has already had dramatic consequences.

From IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs:

"It is very difficult, because at night, we need to make light but there has not been any petrol in the area since last year," said Abba Diallo, president of the Parent-Teacher Association in Thiancone Boguel, a town in northeastern Senegal, some 690km from the capital, Dakar, in the Matam region.

Senegal has been confronted with serious energy supply difficulties for the last three years. Several times, the 12 million-strong West African country, one of the region's most stable economies, has simply run out of gas, petrol and electricity....

Coumba Daff, a cleaner, was shocked to learn that she could not find lamp fuel even at a shop 10km from her village, Séno Palèl. She was obliged to go and visit her sister 30km away, where she hoped to find someone with some fuel. She said she expected to be able to buy one liter for around 2 kilograms of rice.

For several years Senegal's president, Abdoulaye Wade, has been pounding the world's pavement stressing the energy problems faced by African nations that do not have indigenous access to fossil fuels. In 2006 he founded the Pan-African Non-Petroleum Producers Association and he won re-election by a landslide this February, with a promise to boost biofuel production part of his campaign platform.

He followed through by pushing forward a massive jatropha seedling giveaway. But he also announced, in March, that Senegal was consulting with foreign advisors on plans for a nuclear power plant.

From the interview with Diatta:

But at a time when Senegal can't even manage its fossil fuels portfolio, why do you think we can manage nuclear, which is even more costly and complex?

In Senegal, we do not shy away from controversy. When we look at a particular energy technology, we calculate the costs per kWh. This calculus shows nuclear is less costly than other alternatives, with the exception of tidal power. In other words, if Senegal were to pool its resources and invest them in nuclear, we would be well off, because other factors make alternatives less secure options.

To say we can not manage nuclear is a false debate. When the investors think it can be done, they will bring in the knowhow and sell electricity to the Senelec [state-owned electricity company] and to other utilities that will enter the country to make money.

The calculus of nuclear power costs is a tendentious subject. Whether it is feasible at all for Senegal -- at present, South Africa is the only sub-Saharan African country with nuclear power plants -- is beyond the scope of this post. Diatta also discussed some plans to experiment with solar power. But the overall dilemma is still stark. With no fossil fuel resources, the attraction of biofuels or nuclear power may overcome the concerns raised by critics who worry about food vs fuel tradeoffs or nuclear safety. Senegal is a poor African country where lamp oil is hard to find. Could it also be the future?

UPDATE: A more skeptical view.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Africa Energy Globalization How The World Works Nuclear Power