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France pushes its faith in nuclear around the world

Terry Macalister, guardian energy editor

24th March, 2011

The French government is championing energy giants EDF and Areva as they try to build their nuclear businesses around the world

No country outside of Japan has been watching the crisis unfold around the Fukushima nuclear plant more closely than France. Atomic stations provide more than three-quarters of French electricity and the government is keen to champion the 85 per cent state-owned power provider, Électricité de France (EDF), and nuclear plant builder, Areva, as they try to build their businesses around the world.

EDF is at the centre of plans to build new reactors in Britain after beefing up its corporate presence in the atomic sector through the takeover of the UK's largest nuclear plant operator, British Energy. Areva, meanwhile, has submitted its European pressurised reactor (EPR) design for safety approval in Britain and has recently signed up its own supply arrangements with UK turbine maker, Rolls Royce.

While the explosions and radiation releases in Japan triggered promises to review nuclear in Germany, Austria and elsewhere, the French president, Nicholas Sarkozy, was quick to restate his confidence.

'France has made the choice of nuclear energy, which is the key to its energy independence and in the fight against greenhouse gases ... I remain convinced of the pertinence of this choice,' he said.

And the EDF chairman and chief executive Henri Proglio said his company was in close contact with Fukushima operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company, promising help with staff and equipment. He dismissed the decision by Angela Merkel to close seven of Germany's oldest reactors as 'political'.

EDF, which provides gas and electricity supply in Britain as well as dominating its local market, already operates 58 reactors in France. The world's second largest power utility behind E.ON of Germany with operating revenues of €65bn, it has a new EPR plant being constructed at Flamanville on the north coast with a second planned for Penly farther west.

EDF could become even bigger with widespread speculation that the Paris government might force it into some kind of financial tie-up with Areva.

Areva has managed to sell its designs to Finland and China while developing a new 1,100MW Atmea plant in cooperation with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Japan. The French embarassingly missed out on an expected contract to build new reactors in Abu Dhabi but already exports electric power to Britain via a link under the English Channel as well as overland to Italy, the Netherlands and Germany.

But delays and cost overruns with the EPR newbuilding programmes at Flamanville and Olkiluoto in Finland have spread a pall over both companies. As analysts at HSBC wrote in a recent research note: 'We are highly concerned about the ongoing problems of the EPR nuclear reactor, which carries much of EDF's hopes for retaining nuclear leadership.'

This article is reproduced courtesy of the Guardian Environment Network

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