And so, after ten years at the helm of AREVA, the French nuclear conglomerate that was supposed to build Italy’s power plants, Anne Lauvergeon (a.k.a. “Atomic Anne”) has been dismissed by Nicolas Sarkozy. Luc Orsel, chief executive of AREVA, will replace her, but the change is a traumatic one.
Former deputy secretary general for François Mitterrand, Lauvergeon was so business savvy that she worked her way up to become the head of a strategic industry for France, the only country in the world to obtain over 74% of its electricity from nuclear power (in the world’s other nuclear countries, the average normally ranges between 20% and 35%). However, in recent years she has been at odds with EDF (Électricité de France), the state energy giant (which also has a 2.5% stake in AREVA), particularly with its boss Henri Proglio, who enjoys Sarkozy’s support.
However, personal feuds aside, the dispute has a technical-political foundation that affects virtually all of Europe. Lauvergeon (to whom Sarkozy even offered a ministry in 2007, to no avail) is a great supporter of the EPR (European Pressurized Reactor or Evolutionary Power Reactor), a third-generation system designed to produce more energy and have higher safety levels (more emergency cooling systems, greater protection of the core and other precautions) than the previous generations of PWRs (Pressurized Water Reactors).
The EPRs were not only Lauvergeon’s great plan but also the great hope for France to become the world’s leading provider of turnkey power plants. The four plants they were supposed to build in Italy were to use EPR reactors produced by AREVA. China (the leading non-European country to order this kind of reactor) is building two EPR plants in Taishan, in the industrial province of Guangdong.
So, all’s well? Not exactly. In Finland, the construction of the Olkiluoto power plant, equipped with AREVA’s EPR reactors, has become a serious ordeal and is three years behind schedule. AREVA had to appropriate 2.6 billion euro to compensate for any delays and malfunctions. This setback follows one from a year and a half ago, when the United Arab Emirates turned down AREVA’s tender for the construction of four nuclear reactors and instead signed with a South Korean consortium (with the participation of American and Japanese companies). A deal worth 20 billion dollars proved to be a mirage in the desert, and Sarkozy was steaming with rage.
At that point, Lauvergeon’s fate was sealed. And the Fukushima disaster, which appears to support her theories, resulted in such severe losses (AREVA shares have plummeted by 28%) that it put her in even further trouble. Sarkozy wants to cash in. He isn’t interested in plans for a highly powerful reactor (the EPR can produce up to 1600 megawatts) which is safer than its predecessors yet therefore far more expensive and complex. Particularly at a time when Europe—from Germany to Italy, from Switzerland to Spain—has put a halt on nuclear development. Therefore, make way for “older”, less powerful, less safe reactors that are easier to sell. If you’re looking for safety, come back later.