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Last Updated: Monday, 10 July 2006, 18:05 GMT 19:05 UK
French nuclear reactor maker eyes UK
By Rory Cellan-Jones
Business correspondent, BBC News, Chalon-sur-Saone, France

In the French town of Chalon-sur-Saone, the world's busiest nuclear factory is building the components for a new plant in Finland.

Areva nuclear plant
We do not require government subsidy
Robert Davies, marketing director, Areva

If the UK Energy Review gives the green light to nuclear power, the French company Areva will be very keen to build its new design - the European Pressurised Water Reactor, or EPR - in Britain.

Areva's factory in Burgundy has built a quarter of all the world's nuclear reactors, including the French generators that provide 80% of the country's electricity.

But it nearly closed five years ago as demand for nuclear power dried up.

Now it is expanding fast as many countries try to extend the lives of their reactors - or start building new plants - and it is handling orders from the United States and China as well as Finland.

No subsidies

It may be a modern industry but the Areva factory gives the impression of an old-fashioned metal-bashing business - cranes lifting huge lumps of steel, sparks flying as workers weld together giant sections of what will eventually be the steam generating equipment for a nuclear plant.

Areva nuclear plant
Renewed demand for nuclear has safeguarded French jobs

The sections leave the factory on barges and make their way by river and sea to their final destinations.

In another part of the plant a team is polishing the new reactor head for Sizewell B, part of the work Areva is already doing for the UK nuclear industry.

The company - 97% owned by the French government - has appointed a former Royal Navy captain as its UK marketing director.

Robert Davies says that once the UK government gives the go-ahead, Areva could move quickly to build a plant.

"Given a fair wind it could be ready by 2017," he says.

And Mr Davies dismisses the accusation that the EPR will be like previous generations of nuclear power plants, over-budget and behind schedule.

"I put it as the difference between the Concorde and the Boeing 747," he says.

"The 747 is an economic plane and we will build an economic plant. We do not require government subsidy."

Learning curve

What anyone who decides to build a reactor in the UK will need is clarity about the cost of dealing with waste.

In Finland, the government has already decided to bury waste deep underground near the new EPR, which Areva has started building.

But this project has already run into trouble.

A year in, this 2bn plant is already nine months behind schedule after construction difficulties dismissed as "teething troubles" by Areva.

The company says it will learn from its experience with this first EPR and from the new plant it will then build in Normandy.

Long-term certainty

French anti-nuclear groups says Britain should beware of getting into bed with Areva.

Areva nuclear plant
Nuclear power is no longer a popular option in France

"The EPR is very expensive and all the problems with waste have yet to be solved," says Philippe Brousse, who works for the "Get out of nuclear" network.

Mr Brousse says a majority of the French now rejects plans to build new nuclear plants.

Areva is convinced that nuclear power is enjoying a renaissance as the price of oil and gas soars and countries seek to cut their carbon emissions.

But its potential customers in the UK will have to be confident that the economic argument for re-starting the nuclear programme will still look sound a decade from now.


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