BEIJING (Reuters) - China is still actively promoting a nuclear fuel reprocessing project with France’s Orano, formerly called Areva, the head of China’s nuclear safety watchdog said on Tuesday.
France is one of the world’s few civil nuclear powers which reprocesses and reuses part of the spent fuel of its nuclear reactors, rather than treating it as waste.
China, which has a rapidly expanding nuclear fleet, wants to acquire the technology to reduce its reliance on nuclear fuel imports.
But with uranium prices near decade lows, however, the business case for reprocessing is less compelling and China has been dragging its feet for years on signing the contract.
France has estimated a deal could be worth 10 billion euros ($11.14 billion).
At a briefing to introduce China’s first white paper on nuclear safety, Liu Hua, the head of the National Nuclear Safety Administration and vice minister of ecology and environment, said that commercial negotiations on the fuel recycling project are “almost concluded”.
“In addition to commercial negotiation, what is going on is that the two countries are harmonising safety standards ...and stepping up regulation cooperation,” he said.
“On this particular project as far as I know it is proceeding smoothly. It is under way and I believe that soon ... there will be progress,” Liu said.
Liu gave no indication whether a site had been selected for the project. A previously proposed venue in Lianyungang, in eastern China’s Jiangsu province, was cancelled after protests.
An Orano spokesman in Paris said the company is happy China is confirming its interest in reprocessing. “Talks are continuing,” he said, but declined to comment on a possible date.
A signed contract would be a major boost for Orano, which has been discussing the project for over a decade. But the spokesman said Orano’s financial health does not depend on it.
“Orano is viable without this contract,” he said.
In early 2018, Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said that the contract would "save" France's nuclear industry. [reut.rs/2jW383V]
After years of losses wiped out its equity, Areva in 2017 had to sell its nuclear reactor arm to state-owned utility EDF and needed a 4.5 billion euros recapitalisation from the state.
Asked about the recent U.S. blacklisting of Chinese nuclear firms, Liu said the Chinese side condemned the move and noted that U.S. protectionism would harm both countries’ interests.
Washington last month moved to block state-run China General Nuclear Power Corp (CGN) and its subsidiaries from dealing with U.S. companies as they were alleged to be involved in activities contrary to U.S. national security and interests.
Liu also said the move would lead Chinese firms to step up their own research and development and investment.
Reporting by Tom Daly in BEIJING, David Stanway in SHANGHAI and Geert De Clercq in PARIS; editing by Kenneth Maxwell and Jason Neely