Thursday, March 19, 2009

Areva's Financial Meltdown: The Crash of France's Nuclear Poster Child


March 19, 2009

The myth of a successful nuclear power industry in France has melted into financial chaos.

With it dies the corporate-hyped poster child for a "nuclear renaissance" of new reactor construction that is drowning in red ink and radioactive waste.

Areva, France's nationally-owned corporate atomic fa├žade, has plunged into a deep financial crisis led by a devastating shortage of cash.

Electricite de France, the French national utility, has been raided by European Union officials charging that its price-fixing may be undermining competition throughout the continent.

Delays and cost overruns continue to escalate at Areva's catastrophic Olkiluoto reactor construction project in Finland. Areva has admitted to a $2.2 billion, or 55%, cost increase in the Finnish building site after three and a half years. The Flamanville project---the only one now being built in France---is already over $1 billion more expensive than projected after a single year under construction.

In 2008, France's nuclear power output dropped 0.1%, while wind generation rose more than 37%.

Attempts to build new French reactors in the US are meeting stiffened resistance.

And the definitive failure of America's Yucca Mountain nuke waste dump mirrors France's parallel inability to deal with its own radioactive trash.

Widely portrayed as the model of corporate success, reactor-builder Areva is desperately short of money. As it begs a bailout from its dominant owner, the French government, Areva's mismanagement and overextension in promoting and building new reactors has wrecked its image in worldwide capital markets. According to Mycle Schneider, Paris-based author of "Nuclear Power in France---Beyond the Myth," Areva shares have plunged by over 60% since June 2008, twice as much as the CAC40, the standard indicator of the 40 largest French companies on the stock market.

Areva's hyper-active public relations department has made much of recent orders to build two new reactors in China. But it's now begging France's taxpayers for some $4 billion in short term bailout money, and may need still another $6 billion more to pay for investments in uranium mines, fuel production and heavy manufacturing ventures.
The potential American reactor market has also been bloodied by the definitive disposal of the proposed high level dump at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. After decades as the centerpiece of America's "solution" to the nuke waste problem, with at least $10 billion spent on it, Yucca's failure underscores France's own waste dilemma.
Areva says it hopes to raise cash by selling part of a uranium enrichment plant under construction in southern France to Japan's Kansai Electric. Other asset sales may be hampered by slumping market values. Areva also hopes to partner with US weapons builder Northrop Grumman to build heavy reactor equipment in Virginia.

"Those who think that nuclear power would be a cheap and clean way to render the US less dependent on oil should have a close look at the French record."

At the French heart of its "renaissance," the nuclear clock is winding down, not up. Time is running out for a radioactive technology that, after fifty years, remains unable to muster a sustainable level of private financing, shows no real promise of ever paying for itself, and has now plunged into deepening financial chaos.

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