AECL purchase decision depends on Ontario outcome, Areva executive hints

Would Areva, the French nuclear company, buy the power reactor part of Atomic Energy Canada Limited if AECL wins the Ontario reactor competition? I put this question to Jacques Besnainou, president of Areva North America, in a conference call yesterday. The Canadian government decision to sell AECL came as a surprise, was his diplomatic reply. “So we’ll see.”

The reason I asked the question in the first place was a report in the Calgary Herald that said Areva had offered to help Canada deal with the shortage of medical isotopes caused by the shut-down of the reactor that currently provides most of the world supply. That reactor is AECL’s NRU at the Chalk River lab. The Canadian federal government, which owns AECL, announced last week it would put various parts of AECL up for sale.  Two of the most prominent parts are isotope manufacturing and power reactor manufacturing.

Areva is in the middle of an excruciating competition with AECL and Westinghouse to sell power reactors to Ontario. Power reactors are more in line with Areva’s main business than isotope reactors, so it is natural to wonder how the company would react to not winning in Ontario. Besnainou’s polite but non-committal response indicates his awareness of the proximity of Ontario’s decision (it’s close) and his desire to stay out of the charged politics surrounding it. He did however say that in the current financial crisis, Canadian government financial help in new reactor projects, similar to that offered under the U.S. Energy Policy Act of 2005, “would help.”

The conference call, as I mentioned in my May 14 post, is part of Areva’s groundbreaking North American outreach effort. And I say groundbreaking because the company is not shy about going on the record about some pretty controversial issues. Areva’s Olkiluoto project in Finland, the first new reactor project in a western country in decades, is under a bright global spotlight. Like every bright light, it has attracted a lot of buzz.

Olkiluoto, which is over budget and behind schedule, is being publicly micro-scrutinized especially in North America, where Areva is involved in several projects including (it hopes) the one in Ontario.

Besnainou was matter-of-fact about the hype surrounding Olkiluoto. He called a recent New York Times piece on the project “biased against Areva.” (I agree the piece is biased if not outright facile, but the bias is more against nuclear power in general than Areva specifically; have a look.) He said that the problems with welds and concrete are not uncommon, and have been corrected. These are typical start-up problems, and this is a first-of-its-kind reactor. “We’re building a plant that will run for 60 years, not a house.”

Besnainou’s comments on spent fuel reprocessing—another controversial subject about which Areva is not shy—were blunt. America should recycle spent fuel, whether its final resting place is at Yucca Mountain or somewhere else. Besnainou dismissed claims that Areva’s proposed method for reprocessing, called COEX (for coextraction of uranium and plutonium from spent fuel), has proliferation implications: this activity has “no proliferation issues in the United States.” Perhaps, but that’s not the point. Nobody worries the U.S. will use COEX to secretly separate plutonium for weapons: America already has some 80 tons of weapons plutonium.

Rather, the concern is over the U.S. example abroad. COEX in the U.S. effectively opens the door for separative reprocessing in other countries that have, according to some non-proliferation advocates, followed the U.S. since the 1970s in refraining from civilian reprocessing. Could separative reprocessing be a technological step toward weapons plutonium? Some, including DOE, acknowledge that it could.

Besnainou also claimed that fuel recycling is economical, saying that several U.S. utilities have signed letters of intent with Areva regarding burning mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel in their light water reactors. Utilities’ willingness to use reprocessed fuel has been a great unknown in this debate.

However, the letters of intent involve MOX fuel made from military plutonium under an anti-proliferation program that aims to reduce worldwide plutonium stocks. It would not, initially at least, be based on COEXed civilian spent fuel. Areva North America has promised to provide a consulting study to back up its claim about reprocessing economics. It will be interesting to see this study. Harvard’s Matthew Bunn told a congressional hearing in November 2007 that it is not credible.

I’ll comment on both the proliferation and economic aspects of reprocessing in upcoming posts.

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[…] requires enormous amounts of research and development. Areva, as I mentioned back in June (see article), has led the industry call for recycling the 50,000 tons of spent reactor fuel in the United […]