Reuters SHANGHAI/PARIS (Reuters) — A deal long sought by French company Areva to build a $12 billion nuclear waste reprocessing plant in China looks increasingly unlikely to go ahead despite a visit to Beijing by President Emmanuel Macron meant to drum up business.
During Macron’s state visit this week, Areva and China National Nuclear Corp (CNNC) signed a new “protocol agreement” to build the plant but, not for the first time, no definitive contract was signed.
Since talks began more than a decade ago — when uranium prices were near record highs — a series of non-committal French-Chinese memorandums of understanding have been signed for building a reprocessing plant in China modeled on state-owned Areva’s plant in La Hague, northern France.
The reprocessing of nuclear fuel waste involves separating plutonium from the spent uranium and reusing it in “Mixed Oxide” (MOX) fuel at nuclear power stations.
But the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster and competition from renewable energy are weighing on the nuclear sector, and uranium prices are down 80 percent from a decade ago, making the expensive and dangerous recycling process less attractive.
Chinese nuclear scientist Li Ning, dean of Xiamen University’s College of Energy and a member of State Nuclear Power Technology Corporation’s (SNPTC) expert committee, sees “a fairly low probability” that China will sign a formal contract for the project.
“In China, no new reactor projects have been approved for two years, a reflection of overcapacity of power from other sources and concerns about nuclear power, so the urgency of this [reprocessing] plant isn’t strong,” he told Reuters.
French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said on Tuesday Paris had been given assurances that a contract would be signed this spring.
But French ministers and Areva executives have made similar comments before. In November 2007, former CEO Anne Lauvergeon said Areva could be building a reprocessing plant in China in two-to-three years “but we will not sign the contract today.”
In a statement on Wednesday, CNNC spoke of “deepening Chinese-French nuclear cooperation” but did not even mention spent fuel or reprocessing. Areva CEO Philippe Knoche said he hoped to finalize the deal and start the project this year.
Without a site for the plant, that could be difficult.
In 2016, China suspended preliminary work on a possible site in the city of Lianyungang, about 500 kilometers north of Shanghai, following protests by local residents.
An industry source, who has discussed the matter with CNNC, said that with China no closer to selecting the location, it is unlikely a contract will be signed any time soon.
“Time is playing against Areva, and most people in the industry are skeptical. What’s the hurry?” he said.