Nuclear Babies and Bathwater

France wants to take a bigger slice of the nuclear pie from countries such as South Korea. But caution is essential.

Last month, France signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia. Having lost out on a $40 billion contract to set up a nuclear reactor in Abu Dhabi in 2009 to South Korea, the French consortium consisting of Areva, Electricite de France, GDF Suez and Total was extremely keen to bag this deal.

It’s no secret that with the current global nuclear renaissance, France hopes to seize a significant share of the world nuclear market—including from major Asian nuclear energy rivals such as South Korea—by providing access to its nuclear information, technology and materials. Pierre Gadonneix, the chief executive of EdF until 2009, was absolutely clear that his company was poised to ‘take part as investor, builder and operator in the global rebirth of nuclear energy.’

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been especially aggressive in leveraging the French lead in civilian nuclear technology to try to secure diplomatic, commercial and military advantages in the Middle East, in addition to parts of Africa and Asia. He has stressed, for example, his country’s expertise in the nuclear sphere as one of France’s biggest export opportunities for commercial gain as well as how it is an important foreign policy tool for reinforcing the country’s relationships.

Last March, Sarkozy hosted an International Conference on Access to Civil Nuclear Energy in which France ‘expressed its willingness to assist any country wishing to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes which fully abide by their non-proliferation obligations.’ With an estimated 450 new reactors due to be built worldwide by 2030 in a market worth billions of dollars, France is obviously keen to secure a sizeable piece of the pie for itself.

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However, it’s imperative that in the rush to carve out space in the commercial nuclear market, countries don’t overlook the need to assure safe and secure exploitation of peaceful uses of nuclear energy. While there’s certainly logic in countries pursuing nuclear energy, its promise can only be realized by nuclear recipients and suppliers uniformly honouring their commitments to safe and proliferation-free expansion.

Failure to do so, and any accident related to nuclear safety or an increased risk of nuclear proliferation, could well end up with the world throwing out the baby of nuclear energy with the risks of the bathwater. Caution is essential.