French nuclear power export hopes dim

Christopher Werth Jan 9, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: We’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami — and, with it, the end of the toughest year the nuclear power industry’s had in a good long while.

Since January of last year, the number of reactors online around the world has fallen sharply and raised sharp questions about what was looking for a while there like a nuclear power rennaissance of sorts. No country counted more on that revival than France, as Christopher Werth reports.

Christopher Werth: France has invested aggressively in nuclear power. It gets a whopping 75 percent of its electricity from it and has 58 reactors spread all over the country. Here on the rugged coast of Normandy, number 59 is well underway.

The reactor being built here is what’s known as the European Pressurized Reactor, or EPR, designed by Areva. The French company’s executive, Jacques Besnainou, says it’s the first of a whole new generation of nuclear reactors.

Jacques Besnainou: It’s a very, very safe reactor. And it’s been built after lessons learned from different accidents.

Accidents such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and even the September 11th terrorist attacks.

Besnainou: For example, it can resist a crash from a commercial airplane. And it can withstand a core meltdown.

The French government has always hoped the EPR would become a poster child for France’s expertise in nuclear technology, and that Areva would build many more of them all over the world.

Stephen Thomas, a professor of energy policy at the University of Greenwich, says the French state has about a 90 percent stake in the company.

Stephen Thomas: France saw itself as a center for nuclear technology. And what they were looking for was to build maybe one or two in France, which would demonstrate their skills and would open up an export market for them.

But Kash Burchett, an energy analyst at IHS Global Insight, says the EPR reactor being built in France, and another in Finland, are now years behind schedule due to construction delays. And at nearly $8 billion apiece, the price tag is now double the original estimate.

Kash Burchett: It’s certainly not worked out to the kind of poster child that the French government had hoped for it to be.

Since the earthquake and tsunami in Japan last year that damaged the nuclear plant at Fukushima, Germany and a handful of other countries have decided to pull out of nuclear power altogether. They’ve closed down existing plants and canceled plans for new ones. Burchett says that same skepticism is striking a chord in France, where nuclear power has enjoyed wide support in the past.

Burchett: The popularity of nuclear power has been sinking for quite sometime, well before Fukushima.

France heads into an election this year. And Francois Hollande, the Socialist candidate, is polling well ahead of president Nicolas Sarkozy. Hollande, has vowed to drastically reduce France’s reliance on nuclear power.

Olivier Ferrand is a politician with the Socialist Party.

Olivier Ferrand: France is the only country in the world where nuclear energy is so high. So the idea is to have a more balanced approach.

If the nuclear industry is feeling less welcome in France, it’s already begun looking for growth in emerging markets. China, for example, is building two of Areva’s new EPR reactors.

Bertrand Barre, an adviser to Areva, says Fukushima actually demonstrates the safety advantages of the company’s EPR design.

Bertrand Barre: If instead of the four old plants, which were destroyed in the Fukushima accident, we had had two EPRs, and there are the same earthquake, and the same tsunami, we wouldn’t have today a Fukushima accident.

But we do. And it could be another tough year for the nuclear industry. Areva is now facing its first ever operating loss — upwards of $2 billion — as demand for its services declines. The company has announced 1,500 job cuts in the months ahead.

In France, I’m Christopher Werth for Marketplace.

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