Nuclear share to shrink at home, while sales pitch abroad grows stronger

Looking for growth in the emerging economies, France is pursuing cooperation with India to facilitate its companies in such key sectors as nuclear power, transport, water and waste treatment.

President Francois Hollande, who visited India in February, has taken special care to develop relations with India, treating it as a ‘strategic’ country, along with China and Brazil. France is the only European country paying particular attention to regional relations in the entire Asia Pacific region, and ties with New Delhi are ‘special,’ Christian Lechervy, Adviser to the President for Strategic Affairs and Asia Pacific, told a group of Indian journalists in Paris.

The most prominent and controversial aspect of the techno-economic cooperation is the proposal to put up a European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) nuclear plant supplied by the Areva Group at Jaitapur, Maharashtra, with six units, and a unit design of 1,650 Megawatt electric (MWe) output. Other items on the bilateral agenda are high-speed trains derived from France’s famed 300-plus-km-per-hour TGVs, solutions for the upcoming Metro rail projects from companies such as Alstom, and technologies to improve the quality of urban life.

On the Jaitapur plant proposal, Mr. Lechervy said: “We hope that this contract will go forward as quickly as possible. It is completely in line with our companies’ needs and also meets the needs of the local population in India. We will do everything to see that it goes through. The delay penalises not just the seller, but the people.”

But he acknowledged, in reply to questions, that France was working to reduce the share of nuclear energy in its domestic total production, as part of the Mr. Hollande’s election promise that there would be diversification of power sources. “Renewable energy is much less expensive than it was in the past, and it is the sheer desire of the French citizens to diversify,” he explained. However, France would not take any radical decision as Germany and Italy had done, and aimed to maintain 50 per cent nuclear production by 2030 (from the present level of 75 per cent of the total power production).

The Areva Group, which reported annual revenues of €9.342 billion for 2012, has delivered 98 nuclear reactors worldwide, and four of its EPR reactors are under construction at Olkiluoto 3 (Finland), Flamanville 3 (France), Taishan 1 and 2 (China), and one is planned at Hinkley Point in the U.K.

Arthur De Montalembert, Executive Vice-President, Business Development, Areva, said it would take 90 months from the conclusion of an agreement to build the Jaitapur plant. In any case, the first EPR reactor, which had been designed for greater safety with the Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima accidents taken into account, was not likely to be completed before 2017.

Mr. De Montalembert contended that the EPR, criticised by many as an unproven and untested technology, was “as tested or untested as the Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor” of the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited. He pointed out that no geological disposal facility for nuclear waste existed in the world as of now, though work was on to have one in Finland, Sweden and France.

Since Europe has faded as a market for new nuclear power plants, France has begun work on developing smaller reactors, and is concentrating on China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa as big energy markets. In addition, over 360 nuclear reactors worldwide are supported by Areva; mines and front-end work are handled at 323, and operation and maintenance at 257 reactors.

Asked whether Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear energy and opt for renewable energy would lead to greater research investment in that area than in nuclear power, and thus offers an alternative to many developing countries making long-term investments, Mr. De Montalembert said he agreed with that view.

The visiting journalists were told at the Flamanville 3 construction site on the Normandy coast of Électricité de France (EDF), the largest electric utility company in the world, that the reactor with double containment structures was being built to withstand an aircraft crashing into it. The second containment area was designed to ‘seal in’ radiological gaseous waste released in an accident. Separately, a ‘core catcher’ under the reactor vessel would trap corium (the melt of the reactor core consisting of fuel and other elements) and cool it with refractory bricks and a water-based system. Over 22 million man-hours had gone into the construction so far, and about 95 per cent civil and 44 per cent electromechanical works had been completed. Nearly 60 per cent of workers were residents of the neighbouring region, who were ‘highly supportive’ of nuclear power.

An EDF spokesperson said the amount of nuclear waste per capita in France came to 2 grams.

(This writer was part of a group of Indian journalists invited by the Government of France.)

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