UPDATE 3-France’s Sarkozy, nuclear experts, head to Japan

* Sarkozy to be first foreign leader in Japan post-quake

* France sends experts with contaminated water know-how

* France not sending equipment with nuclear team to Japan

(Adds banker quote, context)

By Mathilde Cru

PARIS, March 29 (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 (CEPFi.PA: Quote, Profile, Research) 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) (9501.T: Quote, Profile, Research), 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. [ID:nLDE72G1LH]

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, publicised 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)

UPDATE 3-France’s Sarkozy, nuclear experts, head to Japan