France’s Sarkozy, nuclear experts, head to Japan

By Mathilde Cru

PARIS (Reuters) – France flew two nuclear experts to Japan on Tuesday to help tackle the stricken Fukushima plant ahead of a trip to Tokyo by President Nicolas Sarkozy, the first foreign leader to visit since a devastating earthquake.

Sarkozy, in his additional role as chair of the G20 and G8 economic groupings, will meet Prime Minister Naoto Kan and French expatriates on Thursday, after opening a high-level G20 seminar in Nanjing, China, on global monetary reform.

France is sending nuclear experts from Areva and its CEA nuclear research body at the request of Japanese authorities, which have been battling since the March 11 quake to avert disaster at the Fukushima plant.

The two experts will be based at Areva’s offices in Tokyo in cooperation with the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), and not at the nuclear site, an Areva spokeswoman said.

Their participation could help to improve communication on the disaster, which has compounded Japan’s agony after an earthquake and tsunami killed more than 28,000 people earlier this month.

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.

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

“We have sent two experts, one from the CEA and one from Areva to share our experience on pumping and the treatment of radioactive water,” Environment Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet told reporters.

Areva, which has a staff of 100 in Japan, mostly salesmen, has a joint venture with Mitsubishi to build nuclear fuel rods.

REACTOR DELAYS

The Japanese crisis comes at a sensitive time for France’s nuclear industry, one of the few sectors where the country can legitimately be called a world leader.

Areva has nonetheless had a bumpy run as of late, adding to political pressure on its CEO Anne Lauvergeon, one of France’s most powerful female executives, whose reappointment after a second term in the job is now in question.

The company’s first next-generation EPR reactor has suffered delays and cost-overruns in Finland, where it is being built, and the company lost a $40 billion contract in Abu Dhabi to a South Korean consortium in 2009.

Sarkozy’s office said he would not be joined by nuclear experts or company executives on his visit, and that he was going to offer support to the Japanese people.

Nevertheless the future of France’s nuclear industry will hinge on the success of pitching its EPR reactors, publicized as being able to withstand the most violent of accidents, to users of nuclear energy, including emerging powers like India and China.

“I don’t think Areva is going into Japan and saying ‘here buy our EPR’. It’s early for that. And if the whole thing totally melts down no one will buy nuclear for a little while,” said a banker familiar with Areva.

“But in the end I think they are going to have to put a giant sarcophagus over the plant,” he said, of Fukushima.

TEPCO, has asked for help from both Areva and French power company Electricite de France SA.

Two of the six reactors at the plant are considered stable but the other four are volatile. Workers are struggling to restart cooling pumps in reactors damaged by the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and then drenched from cooling hoses.

The immediate challenge is to pump out radioactive water flooding basements and hampering the restoration of power, and plutonium found in the soil at the complex on Monday piled more pressure on the operation.

An EDF spokeswoman said that while no expert from EDF was immediately going to Japan, it had sent masks, overall suits and boric acid to Japan this month, jointly with Areva, as well as water, soup, blankets, power generators, pumps and trucks.

(Additional reporting by Nina Sovich and Christian Plumb; Writing by Muriel Boselli and Catherine Bremer; editing by Elizabeth Piper)

France’s Sarkozy, nuclear experts, head to Japan