France is scrambling to regain its position as a world leader in nuclear power, before it misses out on an expected boom in the industry.
Once the foremost supplier of nuclear technology at home and abroad, the country has seen its world-wide share of new nuclear-energy projects plunge. If it doesn't find a way to reverse that trend, the French nuclear industry could fail to profit from an expected wave of nuclear-plant construction as the global push for alternatives to fossil fuels intensifies.
In an attempt to restore its companies to prominence, the French government has reorganized the nation's nuclear sector. Among other things, state-controlled utility Electricite de France SA, or EDF, has been given a leading role in bidding on nuclear projects abroad and has been told to boost its stake in state-owned Areva, the country's sole builder of nuclear reactors.
But critics contend that the reorganization is unnecessary and possibly counterproductive. The real problem, they say, is that Areva's main reactor offering, one of the most advanced on the market, is too expensive -- a problem Areva already has begun to address by forming a joint venture with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. to develop a smaller, cheaper reactor. Tying Areva more closely to EDF not only doesn't solve that problem, critics say, but might create others: It could make it harder for Areva to sell reactors to other utilities, especially those that compete directly with EDF for power-supply contracts, and could provide less flexibility than less-formal cooperation between the French companies on a bid-by-bid basis.
'Having a gigantic nuclear group that would design, build and operate reactors is such a bad solution,' says Jean-Marie Chevalier, a nuclear-industry expert at Paris Dauphine University. 'It would be like Air France having a stake in Airbus, and British Airways asking Air France when it wants to buy an aircraft.'
Flagging sales aren't Areva's only problem. Siemens AG, a partner in Areva's reactor business, wants to be bought out and is seeking more than 2 billion euros ($2.7 billion) for its 34% stake. Further straining Areva's finances, the construction of a plant in Finland has suffered delays and cost overruns that doubled the initial 3 billion euro project price -- and the contract forbids Areva to pass those expenses on to the customer.
But the blow that finally prompted the government to act was a failed bid to build and operate four new reactors in Abu Dhabi. Areva initially competed for the project in a consortium with French utility GDF Suez and Total SA, a French oil company. Officials in Abu Dhabi insisted that EDF be added to the group, because of its extensive experience in operating nuclear plants. The French government installed EDF as the project leader, but the contract ultimately went to Korea Electric Power Corp. anyway.
Still, in the wake of that failed bid, French President Nicolas Sarkozy ordered EDF to take the lead in bids for nuclear-power projects abroad (except for simple sales of reactors). The utility not only is the world's largest operator of nuclear reactors but also has long experience managing large nuclear construction projects abroad. The Sarkozy government is betting that its size and experience will appeal to potential customers.
The government also told EDF to raise its stake in Areva from the current 2.4%; the size of the increase hasn't been determined. And the two companies were told to form a 'strategic partnership' for their nuclear activities by year-end. Talks between the two are continuing, an Areva spokeswoman says; EDF declined to comment. The government also plans to sell 15% of Areva to outside investors to give the company more cash to work with.
Whether all of this will help France regain its nuclear leadership is an open question.
Photo: AREVA/Bourdon Paivi阿海珐集团在芬兰开工的一个核电站遭遇延误和成本超支。法国一度曾是核技术的头号供应商，无论是在国内还是海外。然而，法国在核能新项目的全球份额一路猛跌。现在，各国正在寻找其他能源来替代化石燃料，新一轮的核电站建造热潮即将到来，如果不能找到办法扭转颓势，法国核产业将入宝山而空手归。
为恢复其核企业的领先地位，法国政府正在对核板块进行重组，其中一项举措是让政府控股的法国电力公司(Électricité de France SA，简称EDF)领军，出面竞标海外核项目，并扩大EDF在国有企业阿海珐集团(Areva)中的股份，后者是法国唯一一家核反应炉建筑商。
但批评人士表示，重组是不必要的，而且可能适得其反。他们说真正的问题在于，阿海珐主要的核反应炉产品虽然在市面上属于最先进的行列，但造价过于昂贵。阿海珐已经开始着手解决这一问题，与三菱重工(Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd.)组建一个合资公司，研发更小型、更低价的核反应炉。批评人士说，把阿海珐更紧地绑到EDF的战车上 ，不但不能解决现有问题，反而可能制造出新的问题来：阿海珐将更难把反应堆卖给其他公共事业公司，尤其是那些与EDF直接争夺能源供应合同的企业，而且这样做也没有法国企业在每次竞标时组成不太正式的联盟那么灵活。
巴黎多菲纳大学(Paris Dauphine University)的核工业专家舍瓦利耶(Jean-Marie Chevalier)说，建立一个集反应堆设计、建造和运营为一体的庞大核集团是个糟糕的解决方案。”这就彷佛让法航(Air France)拥有空客(Airbus)的股份，然后让英国航空公司(British Airways)问法航什么时候要订购飞机。
但让法国政府下定决心采取行动的最后一击是，阿海珐在阿联酋首都阿布扎比(Abu Dhabi)建造和运营四座核反应炉的竞标中铩羽而归。起初，阿海珐跟法国公共事业公司GDF Suez和法国石油公司Total SA组成联合体参与竞标，但阿布扎比的项目官员坚持要让EDF加入竞标团队，因为其在运营核电站方面拥有丰富的经验。法国政府改让EDF担任项目领队，但该合同最后还是被韩国电力公司(Korea Electric Power Corp)抢走。