Interview with French Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Bernard Bigot.
France is a world leader in the field of nuclear power, generating three-quarters of its own electricity by splitting atoms, while India has now joined the mainstream of global nuclear commerce. So, are there any lessons for India from France? Can there be Indo-French nuclear collaboration? Bernard Bigot, Chairman of the French Atomic Energy & Alternative Energies Commission, says France would be happy to work within the framework of India's nuclear liability legislation, and he hopes to ink contracts worth Euro 11 billion for two 1650 MW European Pressurised Reactors to be installed at Ratnagiri. Excerpts from an interview he gave NDTV Science Editor Pallava Bagla.
India recently passed a nuclear damages and liability legislation. Are you, and France, happy with the provisions? Can French companies still supply nuclear reactors to India?
Yes, for sure. French suppliers could provide nuclear reactors to India within a framework. First, we fully respect this Indian choice about nuclear liability. It's a very important step, as you know. There was some initial concern because it's not the usual… international way to proceed. We recently had in Vienna a very fair and deep discussion with Dr. Srikumar Banerjee, [the Chairman] of India's Atomic Energy Commission. He explained to us clearly what was behind that decision. I really believe we can work together in order to secure liability for the Indian people and also good protection for the French suppliers to deliver without too much risk.
Do you have any suggestions on how some of the so-called irritants in the nuclear liability legislation could be ironed out, so that suppliers' concerns are assuaged while the Indian people are well protected?
We received a clear explanation, and really I think that within the given framework, the application, documents which will come later. We'll find a common agreement fully respecting the concerns of India… I'll say we were anxious to see clear legislation that is well-adapted to Indian situations [that] on the other hand gives proper confidence to the suppliers if they behave as they are doing, usually with very high quality standards. They'll be pleased and [will] work together without any concern.
France hopes to sell its 1650 MW EPR reactors to India. How soon can we see the Indo-French contract for their purchase? Is it likely to happen during the French President's visit to India?
As you know, there was a government-to-government agreement signed during Mr. Sarkozy's visit to India two years ago. So now it's a new step, and really we expect that this new step will be passed during the [President's] next visit to India in December. Areva and its [Indian] counterpart, Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd., have been discussing this for long and we greatly expect that they'll converge towards a common agreement, a common understanding, before the end of this year.
How good is the safety record of nuclear power plants in France?
As you know, in France right now, over 78 per cent of the electricity supplied comes from nuclear energy. So it's very important for France to [maintain] safety, because without safety there is no [future] for nuclear [energy]. We have what we call a nuclear safety authority… It [the record] is quite satisfactory… The International Atomic Energy Agency [has found it to be satisfactory]. So I believe France's record is very good as far as nuclear [energy] is concerned.
On France's 1600 MW EPR, is its design safe, and does it use uranium efficiently?
Yes, as you know… the EPR is a reactor that takes advantage of the experience of two highly qualified reactors. One is French…, coming from the early-1970s, and the other is German. It has been designed in association with the nuclear safety authorities of the two countries. Really I believe it's top-of-the-list as far as safety is concerned. On the other side, it takes real advantage of its capacity in order to use [optimally] the uranium content of the nuclear fuel; it's expected that we'll save 15 per cent of uranium per kilowatt hour produced. So I really believe it … takes the best of the experience, more than 50 years, from France and Germany...
Are you excited about the Indian nuclear energy market? Will France be a reliable and long-term partner for India in nuclear energy?
Yes, I had an opportunity to visit India a few years ago, and I'm expecting to come back this year. We see that India has a very clear policy on nuclear technologies… to develop this energy. Really who would not be excited to see such a large country having a clear policy to develop this technology? It's exciting because we really believe that nuclear energy is good not only for France but also for India… It'll be a very good example when India succeeds. That's why for sure we wish to have a commercial relationship with India, but…we want a strategic relationship. We believe that in the field of nuclear policy, in the field of training young people and engineers, in the field of cooperation in R&D, we have a strong will to be fair and [be a] long-term strategic partner of India. As you know it's a very important issue how to deal with spent fuel. We're very pleased that India and France share the same vision — which means that if you want to have sustainable nuclear development, you need to take advantage of all the natural uranium you get from the mines. And so, we expect that we'll be able to work closely with India.
The French company Areva is building a large EPR in Finland. The project is delayed. What has caused the delay, and what are the cost implications of the delay? More important, why should India buy an unproven reactor?
As you know, right now EPR is a new type of reactor, it's the first of its kind with a very high standard of safety and efficiency. But it has a very clear relationship with previous [types of] French reactors and take full advantage of the…experience… So I don't see any difficulty, with the proven record of this reactor… It's the first of a kind, and there have been some delays… because there are different ways to proceed in France and in Finland as far as the development and construction go. In France, for example, there's a global agreement of the nuclear safety authority, and after that these suppliers can work very smoothly. In Finland, it's one step by one step. There are about 14… [pending] orders… so it takes more time. I've visited the workplace four times now, and I can assure you that it's quite impressive from the point of view of technical performance… It's interesting. As you know, TVO which is the owner of these reactors, is considering building a new one after the one that is being built. …EPR is one of the brands they want to supply… Maybe it was little bit ambitious to say that it would be built in just four years. Now we know that it takes longer. I don't expect any further difficulties. The client is quite satisfied by the way it's proceeding right now from the technical point of view.
In a joint statement the nuclear regulators of France, Finland and the U.K. expressed concerns over the safety of the EPR. How have you, and Areva, addressed the concerns?
EPR is fully qualified and fully licensed. But after this global agreement, [there was] some discussion in order to make improvement. So... they went to check and design… They asked EDF and Areva to demonstrate more clearly that one of the options will be better. So these issues have been largely resolved; really there is no… fight between the nuclear safety authority and the providers. It's just the normal discussion before you give the final agreement to build. Right now, for example, Finland is going to finish as the nuclear safety authority has agreed … The British one is on its way and the French one will also … So it's a normal debate.
(Pallava Bagla is Science Editor, NDTV, and correspondent for the Science magazine)