The French Nuclear Connection

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The deal between the French nuclear behemoth Areva and the Chinese to build two nuclear power plants and run others in China may be part of an answer to that country’s growing energy demand. Not to mention gross pollution. It also gives the now struggling nuclear business a big shot in the arm, and brings a little known, and growing power into focus as a major energy player: Sarkozy’s France.

The Bush administration has hoped it could pump up nuclear as a clean alternative fuel. Since Three Mile Island the business has been in the dumps, mired in controversy over waste disposal and overall safety. As part of its expanding operations, Areva now wants to enter the U.S. market and has cut a deal with Constellation Energy, a Baltimore utility, to sell power plants here. The French, of course, have long played an important role in the oil and gas business with historic interests in Algeria, where the first major LNG exports to the U.S. originated; in West Africa, where the Gulf of Guinea has become a hot spot in the search for what’s left of the world’s oil and gas; and the Middle East.

But the country’s role in reviving the nuclear power business is not so well known. Currently France produces 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. Areva builds reactors, but also is engaged in mining and processing uranium in Gabon, Niger, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia, Finland, Australia, Canada, and the U.S. According to the company’s web site, it has built 100 of the 303 light water nuclear reactors in the world—throughout France and in South Korea, South Africa, and Argentina.

In Canada it owns a major share in the Cigar Lake project in Saskatchewan, which has been billed as an enormous uranium mine, potentially supplying about one tenth of the world’s consumption. And it has numerous uranium interests in British Columbia, Manitoba, Alberta, and in the Arctic archipelago in Nunavut. In the U.S., Areva has uranium mining holdings in Texas and Wyoming and, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, is considering building an enrichment facility in New Mexico.

The deal could give China another foot in the door of the North American energy business. Previously the Chinese have been interested in participating in the oil sands business in Alberta and now with France as a partner can play a larger role in producing and processing uranium not only in Canada but in the U.S.

What next—will we start exporting uranium to China?

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