The French nuclear industry is accustomed to getting high marks from critical observers, whether trade journalists, business school scholars, or historians like Gabrielle Hecht, author of The Radiance of France. The country’s standardized method of designing and building reactors, its national commitment to this one technology in particular, and the country's well-known traditions of scientific management and rational administration have all come in for some of the credit. But the French industry’s lustrous reputation has had a tarnishing of late, with a variety of developments and allegations, starting with critical comments by a French expert visiting the United States.
Even as the national French utility EDF was completing a deal with Maryland’s Constellation, to consolidate a marketing foothold in the United States, there came the news on Nov. 2 that French, British and Finnish regulators had told country’s nuclear contractor Areva to adopt additional safety measures for its EPR reactor: Specifically, the regulators complained that emergency control systems are not sufficiently distinct from routine control systems. The top French regulator said there is "no certainty it will be possible to prove anacceptable level of safety based on the current [EPR] architecture."
The news of EPR safety concerns coincided with the disclosure that 19 of France's 58 reactors are off-line for maintenance and refueling. French Prime Minister Francois Fillon publicly rebuked the country's national utility EDF for allowing this situation to develop, and leaving the country in a position where it would have to import electricity during the winter for the second year running. Naturally the combined news sent Areva's stock into a small slide.
To keep things in perspective, Areva and EDF are among the few nuclear players in the world that are actually building nuclear power plants and which have concrete plans to build more. Areva is well advanced with construction of EPR reactors in France and Finland, though both projects are rather badly behind schedule, and it has started to build a pair in China. It has rather specific plans to build four in England and two more in China, and somewhat vaguer hopes of building six in India and four in the United States.