French giant planning to sell six reactors to India

French nuclear giant Areva, which is planning to sell India six masssive1650 MWe EPR nuclear reactors for the Jaitapur site in Maharashtra, is facing serious financial difficulties with net losses in 2011 placed at well over €1 billion.

Areva's CEO, Luc Oursel, announced drastic job cutbacks and the sale of over €2 billion worth of assets, essentially in the company's uranium mines sector, to offset these losses. Trading in the company's stock was temporarily suspended on the Paris bourse.

This latest bit of bad news comes at a particularly difficult time for Areva and the nuclear industry as a whole, especially in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.

The company's flagship reactor model, the EPR (the only one on offer from Areva), is facing severe delays and cost overruns and its future may be in jeopardy.

Electricity major EDF is reportedly planning to scrap the third generation EPR for a completely new design to be developed jointly with the China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group, or CGNPG.

If that were to be the case, India's plans to purchase the EPR for Jaitapur might well become redundant.

The EPR has been widely criticised as being design-wise too complex and unnecessarily expensive and complicated to build.

An internal French audit of the nuclear industry criticised Areva and EDF for the reactor's complexity and said the two companies had erred by placing all eggs in the EPR basket.

Reactor models

According to La Tribune, an economic daily, Herve Machenaud who heads EDF's power generation division hinted last week that the group was open to using other third-generation nuclear reactor models and that it was already working with CGNPG on the design of a 1,000-megawatt reactor.

There are only four EPR reactors under construction and at least two of them, in Finland and in France, have experienced long delays and cost over runs.

Little information is available about the two EPRs — Taishan I and II being built in China.

In fact, the sorry fate of the EPR reactor is one of the main causes of Areva's difficulties today.

The company was forced to set aside an extra €150 million (or €2.8 billion) for an EPR sold to Finland's TVO for €3 billion on a turnkey basis.

That reactor is still not operational and the costs have risen to well over €7 billion. TVO and Areva are currently locked in arbitration.

But the company's fortunes have also been hit by the acquisition in 2007 of a Canadian mining start up UraMin for $1.8 billion.

At that time, the price of uranium was pegged at $200 per pound. Today that has fallen to a fourth that.

UraMin's reserves in Namibia proved to be far less important than presumed by Areva's surveyors, and the mines' value has had to be downgraded by $1.8 billion.

These errors have obliged Areva to undertake a massive programme of job cutbacks. And though Industries Minister Eric Besson warned Areva that he would not tolerate job losses in France, French workers will not entirely escape the hatchet.

This could prove embarrassing for President Sarkozy's government just six months before his re-election bid next May.

Germany, which decided post-Fukushima to close down 8 of its 17 reactors, will bear the brunt of the job cuts.

The French government is trying to pin the blame for these failures on Anne Lauvergeon, a Socialist, who headed Areva until she was summarily dismissed by President Sarkozy earlier this year. But Mr. Oursel, who was promoted in her place, has been a close collaborater for a number of years.

Ms. Lauvergeon points out that the French State which has a substantial stake in Areva always gave its stamp of approval to her business methods and vision for the company.