Jacques-talk from Areva: the yellow jersey gets the attention

All businesspeople love sports analogies. Most analogies border on cheeseball; many don’t even apply to the situation. But last Friday, Jacques Besnainou, CEO of Areva North America, used one that actually fit the point he was trying to make. “At the Tour de France, everybody watches the yellow jersey,” he said, referring to the colour worn by the front runner in the famous bicycle race. Areva—with reactor projects in Finland, France, and China, and fuel-cycle projects and proposals in the U.S., France, and Japan—is wearing the yellow jersey right now. Besnainou’s point: though a lot of criticism comes with the attention, wearing the yellow jersey is good. It means you are in first place.

And while Areva certainly gets a lot of criticism, it’s the kind of criticism any nuclear company would love because it’s so easy to answer. Take last week’s announcement of a possible deal to build a “mid size” reactor or reactors in New Brunswick (see article). This news attracted the usual suspects when it comes to the anti-nuclear crowd. Every story included a comment from some anti-nuclear campaigner or other, sounding off about how Areva’s Olkiluoto project in Finland is way off schedule and over budget.

In typical anti-nuke fashion, not a single one of these critics mentioned that Areva’s Taishan project in China, which involves the construction of not one but two 1,650-MW EPRs, is actually ahead of schedule. Besnainou did mention that pertinent little point, during a conference call with nuclear bloggers on Friday.

And the point is pertinent, for two huge reasons. First, Olkiluoto represents the kick-off of the nuclear renaissance in “the West.” Both the Finnish utility and Areva understood the risks of the project when they decided to move on it. The main risk was schedule delays, which drive up the cost of big capital projects. The EPR had not been built before. Both parties knew there would be teething problems; it’s unavoidable. But the Finnish utility wanted large amounts of cheap, carbon-free power. Areva wanted to make the EPR a standard setter in the world reactor market. So, realizing the effort was worth the risk, the Finns and Areva agreed to build an EPR.

The second reason follows on the first. Other buyers around the world notice these things. Every serious buyer understands the risk and is prepared to accept it, but they also like to mitigate it as much as possible. A major mitigation strategy is to buy from a serious supplier that has proven itself. And the only way to prove yourself as a supplier is to prove yourself—i.e., supply the materials, components, and expertise you have promised to supply. In the midst of all the media noise over schedule overruns at Olkiluoto and Flamanville, the China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group decided to buy two EPRs.

The fact that the project to build the first of these is ahead of schedule is proof that lessons have been learned at Olkiluoto and Flamanville. Anti-nukes will reply that of course the Chinese project is moving faster: China has no concern for nuclear safety. Besnainou’s response to that echoes his boss Anne Lauvergeon, who told Charlie Rose last week that Areva “will never compromise safety.”

Areva also wears the yellow jersey because its fuel cycle proposal for the U.S.—which is to turn used fuel from American reactors into MOX fuel and re-burn it—is by far the most comprehensive and viable one. (Personally I have felt DUPIC, which would require only mechanical reconditioning of U.S. used fuel, was just as viable. But this method has been promoted so weakly by its developers that it might as well not even exist.)

Again, Areva’s front-runner status on fuel cycle issues gets it all the attention and criticism from the anti-proliferation crowd these days. Anti-nuke activists have lined up to tell the U.S. congress, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, and every sympathetic reporter who will listen (and there are more than a few) that Areva’s MOX proposal for used U.S. civilian fuel is:

  • Too expensive.
  • Unproven.
  • Dangerous for human health.
  • A proliferation threat.

i.e., they trot out all the standard weak arguments against nuclear energy, plus a couple of pious ones just to prove their anti-proliferation credentials. Here’s a typical one, from Robert Alvarez, who consistently exhibits unrivalled skill when it comes to the fine art and craft of elevating irrelevancies to the level of factoids, then convincing gullible reporters that the factoids constitute fact-based news:

Reprocessing plants release about 15,000 times more radioactivity into the environment than nuclear power plants and generated wastes with high decay heat. Other efforts to build what is called a “closed fuel cycle,” where waste is recycled and reused in reactors have failed for 50 years. Such failure has left about 250 tons of plutonium stored at reprocessing plants around the world—enough for some 30,000 nuclear weapons. 

Alvarez contributed that comment to the BRC back in April. A reporter who has never visited Normandy or enjoyed the fine cheeses or the superb Calvados for which, among other things, Normandy is rightly famous, might actually believe the radiation bit. Alvarez is, after all, often-quoted in anti-proliferation  circles; maybe he actually knows what he’s talking about.

But as I mentioned a few weeks ago, I recently toured Areva’s La Hague facility in Normandy, as well as the Flamanville reactor site. I breathed the air, drank the water, partook of the excellent cheese and Calvados, looked down into a pool full of spent nuclear fuel, and touched a used fuel canister. I feel fine.

As for the closed fuel cycle having failed, somebody had better inform German, Belgian, Dutch, and Italian nuclear utilities about this, as well as EDF, the French utility and Areva’s biggest customer for recycled fuel. They all use recycled fuel.

No nuclear company, least of all yellow-shirted Areva, would be surprised to hear these kinds of facile criticisms. All should be disappointed that the Fourth Estate, which is one of the criticial pillars of democratic society, so regularly prints and broadcasts this fluff.

The good news is, the Fourth Estate is undergoing a revolution.

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13 years ago

Steve Aplin wrote:
Anti-nukes will reply that of course the Chinese project is moving faster: China has no concern for nuclear safety. Besnainou’s response to that echoes his boss Anne Lauvergeon, who told Charlie Rose last week that Areva “will never compromise safety.”

What most of these anti-nukes don’t understand is that safety is an integral part of the design of the whole system. For most safety-related systems, it would take a major engineering effort to design it out. Why spend EXTRA money to make something LESS safe?

13 years ago

Don, good question: why spend extra money to make something less safe? Because that’s what reactor vendors do! They run around the world selling meltdown-prone machines, because they realize that it’s better to make a quick profit then get sued into bankruptcy and go to jail than to make even bigger long term profits and stay in business.

Again, very disappointing that a lot of mainstream reporters don’t also ask questions like this. I guess that after getting scooped by the National Enquirer on the Edwards story they’re trying to get revenge by out-Enquiring the Enquirer.

13 years ago

Steve – thank you for bringing up the fine memory of our late night repast in Normandy. The cheese was, indeed excellent, though I seem to recall that I passed on the Calvados. I also feel fine with excellent memories of the trip, the well maintained facilities and the gradual process improvements that Areva is implementing as they continue to reduce, reuse and recycle.

How many times have you read about their amazing energy efficiency exercise of reducing fuel enrichment electricity consumption from 2700 MWe to just 50 MWe, thus freeing up nearly three nuclear power plants worth of capacity with just a $2 billion investment?

I also wanted to mention that it is not just “anti-nukes” that like to spread misinformation about the cost and “proliferation hazard” of the aqueous recycling processes. I subscribe to an email list of Integral Fast Reactor junkies. They are constantly using negative arguments about aqueous recycling to try to justify huge federal government investments in developing their baby. Of course, they claim that it is much cheaper, more reliable, and produces material that is far less likely to be attractive to a terrorist bent on using reactor grade plutonium. (See Atomic Insights for some recent articles on just how unlikely such a terrorist project would be in the first place.)

Unfortunately, they want the government to spend about a billion dollars per year for five to ten years to prove just how cheap their technology will be – once it actually works on an industrial scale.

I am certainly not opposed to technological improvements, but I hate it when proponents of neat ideas “go negative” to try to capture taxpayer money for a project to prove that their new idea is better than the one that already works.

13 years ago

Rod, thanks—yes, I also continue to enjoy recollections of the trip.

It certainly is disappointing to see other pro-nukes attacking a viable nuclear enterprise, especially when by doing so they are helping to perpetuate the myth of proliferation risks associated with spent fuel.

I guess this is inevitable whenever people fight for money: loyalty to a general cause, in this case nuclear power, is subordinated to the financial interest of individual companies or R&D organizations (or divisions/branches/sectors within government departments).

The question of the viability of current recycling á la France was touched on in a brief back-and-forth between me and Bob Alvarez in the Comments of Page van der Linden’s post on Alvarez’s Hanford report: