JAPAN | French nuclear power lobbyists used Fukushima smear campaign to promote own businesses

Posted on July 4, 2011

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JAPAN | MAINICHI | 4 July 2011

In this June 1, 2011 file photo released by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), workers inspect equipment inside the cesium absorption tower, part of the radioactive water processing facilities at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture. (AP Photo/TEPCO)

Less than a month after the outbreak of the Fukushima nuclear crisis, illustrated brochures elaborating on the process leading up to the hydrogen explosions at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant were distributed to members of the U.S. Congress and government officials in Washington.

The color-print, A-4 size brochures, later to be called the “Fukushima Files,” were handed out by lobbyists from France’s nuclear power giant Areva SA in early April.

The 33-page brochure underscored that General Electric Co. (GE)’s Mark I containment system was employed at the Fukushima plant, while containing speculation and describing fuel melting in the spent fuel storage pool, which never took place. On its last page, the brochure concluded that Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) apparently had not released most of the information it held.

The leaflet sent shockwaves around Tokyo and Washington, as well as GE officials, who were busy responding to the nuclear crisis. Areva lobbyists stressed that the accident was peculiar to Japan when they handed out the leaflets, hinting that similar accidents would never occur with nuclear plant systems provided by Areva. It was obvious to the recipients of the brochures that they were part of Areva’s maneuvering to quash its competitors in the nuclear power business.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s visit to Japan on March 31 almost coincided with the distribution of the leaflets. During a meeting with Prime Minister Naoto Kan, Sarkozy made assurances that Japan will recover from the crisis and promised to offer the country his full support. He further requested Kan to deliver the opening speech at the G8 summit meeting starting on May 26 in Deauville, France — marking the first time for a Japanese prime minister to do so.

In this image released Saturday, April 16, 2011, by Tokyo Electric Power Co., top of the container of the nuclear reactor, painted in yellow, of Unit 4 at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Plant is observed from its side with a T-Hawk drone Friday, April 15, 2011 in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, northeastern Japan. (AP Photo/Tokyo Electric Power Co.)

In this image released Saturday, April 16, 2011, by Tokyo Electric Power Co., top of the container of the nuclear reactor, painted in yellow, of Unit 4 at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Plant is observed from its side with a T-Hawk drone Friday, April 15, 2011 in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, northeastern Japan. (AP Photo/Tokyo Electric Power Co.)

The hypocrisy of using both smear attacks and support infuriated Japanese government officials. Nevertheless, France tried to curb any negative impact that the Fukushima accident could exert on its nuclear power business by stressing that the accident was peculiar to Japan, while taking the accident as a rare business opportunity to overturn the dominance of the U.S.-Japan alliance — namely the GE-Hitachi partnership and the Toshiba-Westinghouse consortium.

Areva’s then CEO Anne Lauvergeion, who had arrived in Japan the day before Sarkozy’s visit, also gave a desperate sales pitch to Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Banri Kaieda, telling him at a meeting that he could use Areva’s employees as his subordinates. The marketing effort was also intended to demonstrate Areva’s technology to the world, after conceding to South Korea a successful bid for the United Arab Emirates’ nuclear power project.

In contrast, GE’s Chairman and CEO Jeffrey R. Immelt came to Japan later than Lauvergeion. “He was afraid of being blamed for product responsibility and was even reluctant to meet Japanese government officials initially,” said a senior official with the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry.

After being convinced by Hitachi, with which GE has a partnership in the nuclear power business, Immelt met industry minister Kaieda on April 4 and offered his full support for the handling of the Fukushima crisis. However, when reporters pursued GE’s product liability at a press conference following the meeting, Immelt dodged the question and stressed instead that the safety of nuclear power generation had been maintained for many years.

Japanese nuclear reactor manufacturers were also overwhelmed by France’s marketing strategies. They were effectively overtaken by Areva when the company appealed to TEPCO that it has a better purification system to decontaminate radioactive water released from the Fukushima plant than any other manufacturers and that it could deliver the system swiftly. “We had no choice but to put up with the unendurable,” lamented a senior official with a Japanese manufacturer.

In this photo taken on Thursday, March 31, 2011 by Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and released by Japan Defense Ministry Friday, April 1, Top parts of explosion-damaged reactors from left, Unit 4, Unit 3, Unit 2 and Unit 1 of the tsunami-stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex are seen with ravaged waterfront facilities in Okumamachi, Fukushima Prefecture, northeastern Japan. (AP Photo/Japan Defense Ministry)

In this photo taken on Thursday, March 31, 2011 by Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and released by Japan Defense Ministry Friday, April 1, Top parts of explosion-damaged reactors from left, Unit 4, Unit 3, Unit 2 and Unit 1 of the tsunami-stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex are seen with ravaged waterfront facilities in Okumamachi, Fukushima Prefecture, northeastern Japan. (AP Photo/Japan Defense Ministry)

After successfully receiving an order from TEPCO, Areva’s Lauvergeion stated that the era of low-price competition in the nuclear power business was over, signaling her confidence in Areva’s products. She subsequently resigned in late June.

More than 180 nuclear reactors are currently under construction or being planned to be built in emerging countries and other regions, comprising a 1-trillion-dollar (approximately 80 trillion yen) market worldwide. Demand for nuclear energy shows no signs of decline even in the wake of the Fukushima crisis, rekindling fierce competition in the international business arena.

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