A few years ago, most people outside France would have scoffed at such claims. The accident at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island plant in 1979 and the disaster at Chernobyl seven years later turned an already skeptical world public against nuclear energy. Moreover, oil as cheap as $10 per barrel in the 1990s destroyed its economic rationale. But times have changed. Lessening energy dependence on unstable Middle Eastern and other countries is now a government priority in many countries. And with worldwide demand for energy rising sharply, oil prices spiking at more than $60/bbl and fears growing among the public at large about the lasting impact of greenhouse gases on the environment, the outlook for nuclear today is a lot more radiant.
Finland is just one of several countries to commit to a new construction program. China's nuclear plans are the biggest and most significant: it currently has nine nuclear reactors in operation and says it will increase its nuclear capacity fivefold by the year 2020 to help cope with its huge appetite for energy. Later this year the Chinese are expected to kick off the next phase of their nuclear expansion by selecting a Western contractor for two new plants. In the U.S., the Energy Policy Act, which sets up a new form of federal risk insurance, is widely seen as ushering in a new era. "We will start building nuclear power plants again by the end of this decade," President George W. Bush announced when he signed the bill into law in August. In much of Europe, too, official attitudes to nuclear are shifting rapidly. Bulgaria is currently holding a tender for two new reactors. The British government is considering renewing its nukes. And in both Germany and Sweden, there's a big debate as to whether to reverse a previous commitment to shut down existing reactors.
Nuclear energy still faces big obstacles, primarily the still-hostile public opinion in some countries and the unresolved problem of how to dispose of nuclear waste that will continue to be radioactive for hundreds of years. Says Lars Josefsson, chief executive of the big Swedish utility Vattenfall: "It will continue to be a very difficult question especially in Europe, as many governments have taken very strong decisions in the past against nuclear."
Areva is well placed to capitalize on any comeback. The company, which had revenues of $13.5 billion and is owned by the French state, is a one-stop shop for nuclear energy with almost a one-third share of the market. Unlike its key competitors Westinghouse and General Electric, its activities span all aspects of the business: it mines and enriches uranium ore to make nuclear fuel; designs and constructs reactors and helps to operate them; it also recycles the spent fuel and packages the remaining waste. Just last month, it announced a joint venture with Baltimore-based Constellation Energy to promote its new generation of nuclear plant in the U.S. and expects orders for four reactors once the technology is approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
If the company does play a central role in a new nuclear age, it will be due in part to Lauvergeon, an engineer by training who has pushed hard to improve the image of nuclear energy, and in part to French attitudes towards the technology. France pushed through an aggressive nuclear energy program in the 1970s after the first oil shock. While the share of nuclear energy worldwide is just 16% of the total, it is five times higher in France, which has 59 of the world's 440 reactors on its soil. More are on the way: last year, the government approved the launch of a new generation of reactor, with the first one scheduled to be builtby Arevain the Normandy town of Flamanville starting in 2007. Just how big could nukes become? Jean-Jacques Gautrot, who heads Areva's international division, does a quick calculation. Taking into account the world's growing energy needs, and the fact that many of the world's existing plants will be coming to the end of their lives, he reckons at least 800 new reactors will be built over the next 25-35 years. Areva is convinced it is in the right place at the right time.