20110331 sarkozy naotokan 54
French President Nicolas Sarkozy (L) shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan (R) during their joint press conference at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo on March 31, 2011. - 

Kai Ryssdal: French President Nicolas Sarkozy is in Japan today. He is the first foreign leader to visit since the earthquake and tsunami three weeks ago.

Also there is the chief executive of the French nuclear company Areva. She brought with her a team of engineers to consult on the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. She's also going to try to shore up business, while she's at it.

From the Marketplace European Desk in London, Stephen Beard reports.

Stephen Beard: Areva is advising the Japanese on how to remove contaminated water from the plant. It has also donated 10,000 anti-radiation suits and other equipment. But Areva is not an aid agency -- it is the world's biggest nuclear company. Its fundamental purpose is commercial, says Alex Barnett, of the Jefferies investment bank.

Alex Barnett: They want to sell reactors globally, so for them limiting the damage here is absolutely crucial. It's absolutely crucial for them that this situation is remedied as fast as possible.

Areva -- largely owned by the French government -- sells some $16 billion worth of nuclear reactors, fuel and expertise annually. The Fukushima crisis has already cost it a lot. Nuclear consultant Mycle Schneider says reactor sales to Italy, Britain and other countries have been put on hold.

Mycle Schneider: Projects in South Africa have been shelved. Follow-up projects in China seem to be pretty dead at this point. So you can already see within less than three weeks that the impact is phenomenal.

Some say it could be a decade before anyone orders a new reactor. Steve Thomas of Greenwich University says the best the nuclear industry may hope for in the meantime is to sell the services, managing and supplying existing plants. He says that might explain the French presence in Japan.

Steve Thomas: They are trying to bolster their reputation as the country with all the nuclear expertise at the moment.

But he says whatever the French achieve in Japan, this is an industry in desperate trouble.

In London, I'm Stephen Beard for Marketplace.