Areva CEO, French nuclear experts, land in Japan

By Sybille de la Hamaide and Mathilde Cru

PARIS (Reuters) – Areva Chief Executive Anne Lauvergeon arrived in Japan on Wednesday, broadening out a French delegation that has flown out to help Tokyo Electric Power bring its crippled Fukushima nuclear plant under control.

The head of the French nuclear reactor maker — one of France’s most powerful female executives — traveled to Tokyo with three French experts in radioactive water contamination.

Two other Areva experts flew to Japan on Tuesday, after a request for help from Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), an Areva spokeswoman said.

Separately, President Nicolas Sarkozy will make a flying visit to Tokyo on Thursday, the first foreign leader to arrive since a March 11 earthquake and tsunami killed more than 28,000 people and set off the world’s worst atomic crisis in years.

“At the moment the problem which worries TEPCO is water, so we are trying to see — because they are specialists in the treatment of radioactive waste — what they could advocate,” she said. “They are looking at what aid we could bring them.”

While Sarkozy will offer France’s support to the Japanese people, Lauvergeon’s experience makes her well-placed to help with technical aspects of the crisis. “She knows Japan well, she knows the industry well, it is a way to answer the Japanese request for expertise,” the Areva spokeswoman said.

Hundreds of engineers have been toiling for nearly three weeks to cool the plant’s reactors and avert a meltdown of fuel rods. While that scenario has receded, highly tainted water has been found in some reactors and in concrete tunnels outside.

Readings have also showed radioactive iodine in the sea off the plant at record levels and radiation has been in tap water in Tokyo and in tiny traces abroad.

The French experts will be based in the Tokyo area, where TEPCPO has offices, and not at the nuclear site itself.

Their participation could help improve communication on the nuclear disaster, which has meant weeks of agony for Japan on top of the human losses from the tremor and tsunami.

OPINIONS MIXED ON SARCOPHAGUS

The length of Lauvergeon’s trip was yet to be determined but it could last several days, the spokeswoman said.

France’s ASN nuclear watchdog said on Wednesday it also aimed to send an expert to Japan during Sarkozy’s visit.

“To get back to an acceptable level of safety (at the plant), to move on from temporary solutions, it’s a question of weeks if not months,” ASN Chairman Andre-Claude Lacoste told a parliamentary hearing. “We are in a long-term crisis,” he said.

Experts say a lack of information and some inconsistent data have made it hard to understand what is happening at Fukushima, which appears to have moved from a core-meltdown phase to one in which the management of released radioactivity is paramount.

ASN said it was not clear whether the increasingly discussed idea of putting a sarcophagus around the Fukushima plant to avoid a spreading of the radiations was the best solution.

“It’s not certain at all we should imagine a sarcophagus. Take the example of Three Mile Island, half of the heart (of the reactor) melted and there was no sarcophagus,” he said.

The Three Mile Island nuclear accident in the United States in 1979 caused severe damage to a reactor core but resulted in a relatively small radiation leak.

In 1986, 90,000 workers and soldiers braved perilous radiation levels after the worst ever nuclear accident at Chernobyl to build a massive sarcophagus that is now riddled with cracks and holes.

France is the world’s most nuclear-dependent country, producing 75 percent of its power needs from 58 nuclear plants, and selling state-owned Areva’s reactors all over the world.

(Editing by Catherine Bremer)

Areva CEO, French nuclear experts, land in Japan