By Michael Mariotte

The containment dome at Flamanville-3 has been installed. It would be exceedingly difficult and costly to replace the bottom head of the reactor pressure vessel installed here.

For most people with any interest in energy issues, France is synonymous with nuclear power. With 78% of its electricity generated by the atom, it is by far the most nuclear-dependent country in the world. It’s state-owned flagship Electricite de France is the world’s largest nuclear utility. State-owned Areva is one of the largest nuclear reactor manufacturers in the world.

When nuclear industry lobbyists–anywhere in the world–try to find a success story for their technology, they invariably point to France.

But more rapidly than could have been imagined even five years ago, pointing a finger at France doesn’t evoke nuclear success. Rather, France, whose nuclear industry is in speedy and accelerating decline, today exemplifies the failure of nuclear power. Moreover, a closer look at France reveals where the world is headed: to a clean and surprisingly affordable nuclear-free and carbon-free energy system.

If that kind of energy future can come to France–and it increasingly appears that it will and sooner than might be expected–then it can come everywhere.

Yves Marignac of WISE-Paris, whose expose of the current serious safety issues of Areva’s EPR reactors was published in GreenWorld a month ago, stopped by NIRS’ office this week and gave a presentation on recent developments in the French nuclear industry. This piece is based on that presentation and our ensuing discussion on the issues raised.

To understand just how far the French nuclear industry has fallen in recent years, look no further than the value of EDF and Areva. Since 2007, EDF’s stock price has fallen more than 70%; Areva’s by more than 85%. EDF is 34.2 Billion Euros in debt. Areva’s debt is much smaller, at 5.8 Billion Euros, but Areva is valued at only 3 Billion Euros (less than a third of the cost of the Flamanville or Finland’s Okiliuoto-3 EPRs now under construction). Last year, it lost 4.8 Billion Euros. If Areva weren’t 83% government-owned, it almost certainly would have declared bankruptcy by now.

Not only has Areva lost billions on the Finnish reactor–it is building the facility under a 3.3 Billion Euro fixed-price contract although the plant is now near the 9 Billion Euro mark, and counting–it is also losing money in its once lucrative reprocessing business and can’t find any new customers, and somehow even screwed up a radioactive waste storage contract at Chernobyl (link in French).

Areva’s problems appear to stem from a combination of incompetence and overreach–the EPR reactor is much larger than all but a very few potential customers can possibly use and so complex that it is proving nearly impossible–and hugely expensive–to build. Add to that the reality that much of the world is turning away from nuclear in the wake of Fukushima and the future seems dim for Areva as a reactor manufacturer. The company does have some potential viable businesses in uranium …read more

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