Encore entente cordiale?

By John Busby   
27 March 2008


On 7 June 2006 Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac met in Paris to agree to cooperate in the development of nuclear power. 

See Entente Cordiale published 7 August 2006.

The state visit of France's President Sarkozy to the UK on 26 March 2008 will culminate in an agreement with Prime Minister Brown to jointly develop a new generation of nuclear power plants and to export the technology to the rest of the world. Concurrently to the meeting in Arsenal's Emirates football stadium Sarkozy is offering to decommission some of his arsenal of nuclear warheads.

The recent UK government consultation on nuclear power has ended with an invitation to the private sector to invest in a replacement fleet of reactors, while putting finance in place "up front" to avoid future decommissioning and waste management liabilities passing to the taxpayer. The designs of three out of four reactor candidates are to be examined by safety inspectors, culminating in the approvals for the new build in 2012. With an anticipated construction period of five years, new nuclear generation would commence at the earliest in 2017.

It now appears that this is not big enough or fast enough for Gordon Brown. His industry minister John Hutton wants more than just replacement and is arguing for a "significantly higher proportion" of nuclear generation than at present.

The competing designs submitted for scrutiny are those of Toshiba (Westinghouse in the US), GE (US), Candu (Canada) and Areva (France). The agency involved in the task has in the past has taken much time and has insisted on modifications for increased safety, which in the case of the Sizewell B station added to the cost and the delay.

Cooperation with France for nuclear power means working with Areva, the station builder and fuel provider, which is 90% French state owned. Already electricity is generated and distributed in Britain by EdF, another French company, 85% state owned. Other potential nuclear generators in the UK include German E.On and RWE, Spanish Iberdrola and the UK's Centrica and would presumably be obliged to purchase an Areva reactor. There seems little point in studying the rival designs, but cutting them out risks infringing anti-competition laws.

It seems that the Brownian "clunking fist" is impatient with the birth pangs of a nuclear "renaissance" unlikely to be financed by the private sector without subsidy and disincentivised by the need to meet waste management obligations "up front". He wants to lay the foundation stone of Sizewell C right now and that means building an Areva station (or two) there without scrutiny or waiting until the prototype being built in Finland has been satisfactorily commissioned.

The Arsenal agreement represents a return to the corporate state if we ever left it! If EdF is the keenest developer it is because, as a state company, it needs no subsidy and leads to a re-nationalisation of part of the UK electricity industry, albeit by the French state.

The flaw is Areva's declining supply of uranium needed to make the nuclear fuel for its reactors in France, China, Belgium, Finland and others. Half of the US nuclear generation is fuelled from Russian ex-weapons highly enriched uranium diluted to a reactor grade by Rosatom. France supplies some enrichment tails for this program and it may be surmised that Sarkozy is planning to fill the looming gap in France's uranium supplies by sending some of its ex-weapons material to Russia for dilution.

The Entente Cordiale in the football ground concludes the Blair-Chirac agreement in June 2006 (See RRR's "Entente Cordiale?"). The original Entente Cordiale was between Britain and France in 1904, worried about the German navy, but in 1907 it was to become the Triple Entente when Russia joined in to defend Serbia against Austro-Hungarian expansion.

Maybe the Arsenal meeting is not just Encore Entente Cordiale but presages a Triple Entente to keep the lights on in France.