The French call the CEO of the largely state-owned nuclear power company Areva "Atomic Annie." Lauvergeon also sits on the board of Total
Has nuclear energy's moment arrived?
We are experiencing a nuclear renaissance not only in Western countries but in the rest of the world—China, India. Also, we have newcomers now in the game. That's very exciting. And it's a very good business for us.
What are the arguments for nuclear power?
First, it's a good way to produce a lot of electricity cheaply. Of course, you have to invest heavily at the beginning, but afterwards you have 60 years of electricity at a very predictable cost. You don't depend on other countries, and you have no CO2 emissions. But nuclear energy is not for everybody. You cannot build new nuclear plants in a country that is not stable, that is not managed with rationality.
Two issues always come up. One is the possibility of another Chernobyl, some kind of accident. People look at what happened in the Gulf and they say, "Aha!" Big accidents can happen. Plus, what do you do with the waste? And what about that plutonium that comes from the waste?
The new generation [of nuclear plants] answers your questions. You have no waste. And, of course, we have taken lessons from Chernobyl. It was a Soviet accident with a Soviet design. Our designs are much better. We have taken the lessons of Three Mile Island, and we have taken the lessons of September 11. Safety, security first.
What are you doing with the nuclear waste?
First, you put a very small quantity of uranium into the plant. So at the end you have a very small quantity of nuclear waste. What to do with it? We are recycling 96 percent of this waste. You don't recycle in the U.S.
Why is that?
It was a choice made by President Carter in the past saying that the technology for reprocessing/recycling could be used for a military purpose. Fortunately, President Obama decided recently to establish a commission to review this policy.
Between now and 2050, what percentage of U.S. demand could nuclear serve?
You have 20 percent of your electricity produced by nuclear. You have the oldest nuclear plants in the world because you started in the '50s or '60s. Some of them have no lifetime extension [after]...2025, 2030. So what to do? It's in your hands, but it's clear that India, China, a lot of emerging countries are going to nuclear. Why? Because it is cheap. We are in a global competition worldwide. If we are not competitive in terms of energy, we are dead.
Why isn't the momentum to nuclear faster?
To build a new nuclear plant in the U.S., you have to be licensed, and it takes five years.
Is that licensing a bad or good idea?
It's a very good idea. You have to protect the public, so it takes time.
Would you sell a reactor to Iran?
Never. They don't accept the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] rules. Pakistan? No. North Korea? No.
What's the threat, as you see it?
Iran, Pakistan, North Korea. They don't have one kilowatt hour produced by a nuclear plant. They say they need enrichment capacities and some specific technologies for civilian use, but...we have an international system to deliver enriched uranium. Take a country like Switzerland or Belgium. They have had nuclear plants for like 40 years, and they don't have enrichment capacities.
Did you turn down the job of French Finance Minister?
Obviously you did. Is it simply because you want to run your company well or because you're full of some missionary zeal and have taken it upon yourself to sell nuclear energy to the world?
No, no, no. God didn't give me a mission to save the world or sell nuclear. No. I am a normal person. But the energy business is a fantastic place to be.
The French get almost 80 percent of their energy from nuclear. Why are they more accepting of nuclear power than Americans? Because they like to be contrarian and also like technology?
I think we have another reason that's my own interpretation. In France, we have been traumatized by the end of colonialism and the civil war in Algeria. And to depend on Middle East countries for oil, that is impossible for France.
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