Areva’s bold North American gamble: nuclear giant rewrites PR playbook

When it comes to media play, French nuclear giant Areva is a juggernaut. The chart below shows how Areva’s media coverage in the past three months compares quantitatively with that of its two competitors in the Ontario reactor competition. As you can see, Areva out-pulled arch rival Westinghouse three to one, and Ontario incumbent AECL fifteen to one. See Areva media play.

Too bad quantity doesn’t equal favourableness. If quantity were all that mattered, certain people renowned for dirty deeds or allegations thereof would be on top of the world. As it turns out, one of the more prominent pieces of media play for Areva was in The Economist, the haughty and elitist but well-read British news magazine. On the surface, the piece is about whether Anne Lauvergeon, Areva’s president, can keep her job amid mounting bad news on the corporate performance front (see article).

It’s the nature of the bad news that makes this bit of publicity something Areva probably wishes were not out there, especially in the context of the Ontario reactor competition. One of the problems Ms Lauvergeon wears as president is the Olkiluoto project in Finland, where Areva is building a brand new 1600 megawatt EPR reactor. The project is behind schedule and over budget, and there is a media report that the Finnish nuclear regulator is grumbling about the facility’s shutdown systems.

I and other energy bloggers had a conference call last week with Areva’s North American division. (For a list of the other bloggers, see this article by Dan Yurman.) A company executive declined to discuss non–North American matters, so we didn’t get into Olkiluoto specifically—though the issue at hand, schedule and budget overruns, is a familiar one in Ontario’s nuclear history. The executive did however defend Ms Lauvergeon’s desire to keep a transmission and distribution (T&D) capability in the company, something The Economist says the French government wants Areva to sell. Of course, what else was the executive supposed to say.

Don’t get the impression though that the Areva executive was dodging contentious issues. He was up front about Areva’s position on reprocessing, and about how the U.S. could and should deal with its inventory of light water reactor (LWR) spent fuel now that the proposed spent fuel repository at Yucca Mountain has been shelved for at least the next four years.

The conference call was something Areva North America initiated, as part of a novel communication outreach effort which included launching a blog. I say “novel” not because no other company has tried working the blogosphere (many have) but because Areva is the first reactor manufacturer to do so in a serious way. Given the high rating of nuclear energy on the Controverse-O-Nometer, this was a radical move. Especially for a French company looking to make major inroads in North America.

Areva’s advocacy in favour of reprocessing is particularly audacious. This is a controversial subject, especially in the current opinion climate. It touches on international security, geopolitics, fiscal policy, and good old fashioned economic nationalism. It also involves partisan politics: the highest profile U.S. advocate for civilian nuclear fuel reprocessing in the last thirty years was none other than George W. Bush.

There is no doubt that Bush’s unpopularity plays a role in the new U.S. administration’s coolness toward reprocessing. But aside from partisan politics, reprocessing has a formidable array of natural opponents as well. Areva faces a challenge in persuading this segment of elite opinion to support the company’s proposal for dealing with the inventory of spent light-water fuel in the U.S.: turning it into mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel and burning it again in LWRs.

No other reactor maker is pushing reprocessing as strenuously as Areva, perhaps because the subject is so controversial. Is Areva the only reactor maker that could profit from reprocessing? No. But Areva’s blogosphere gambit gives it another opportunity to define the debate.

And the debate is heating up. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference is next year, and the issues of proliferation-resistant technologies, fuel leasing, and reprocessing methods are getting special attention. So Areva’s outreach to informed energy bloggers is a risky but smart move. If you want to influence a debate, you have to participate in it.

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11 years ago

It is one thing to participate in the blogosphere and blast out your ideas. It is quite another to listen to it, filter out the fluff, and make changes in your approach to business accordingly. I have no doubt that Areva can blast out their ideas, but it will be interesting to see if they can take in anything and make the proper changes.

11 years ago

Good point Randal. There are degrees of participation, and idea-blasting is the most basic. I guess the question is twofold. First, will the blog initiative create favourable buzz in the blogosphere. Second and most important, will this make Areva more effective in achieving its primary aim: selling reactors and fuel services.

Time will answer both questions, but you have to admire the basic calculation. Since no other reactor maker is doing this, and since the “nuclear industry” is generally regarded as too secretive, Areva must have decided it is worth while to see if it can gain some first-mover advantage.

Like I said, the company is not avoiding controversy. Areva is pushing its fuel services in South Korea as a possible solution to the impasse between South Korea and the U.S. over what to do with the spent fuel that originated in the U.S. This issue gets its heat because of the problem with North Korea, and you could wonder if a commercial company would be better advised to just stay out of it. But here is a situation where a for-profit company is proposing a solution in which its commercial interests dovetail with wider security interests. There’s an argument to be made that strong commercial relationships are a sine qua non for strong non-proliferation measures. Other reactor makers might be arguing in a similar direction, but how do I know.