Row over UK Hinkley nuclear plant alarms EDF investors


Paris (AFP)

The resignation of French energy giant EDF's finance chief sent its shares plunging Monday as concerns grew over the risks of its plan to build a next-generation nuclear plant in Britain.

Thomas Piquemal quit after a disagreement within EDF over the £18-billion (23.2-billion-euro, $25.5 billion) Hinkley Point project in Somerset, southwest England, which has been slated to produce seven percent of Britain's energy needs by 2025.

EDF confirmed his resignation with immediate effect, with a company source saying Piquemal had quit in a dispute over "the short-term feasibility" of the project.

Two sources told the Financial Times that Piquemal was concerned that going ahead with Hinkley Point could plunge heavily-indebted EDF's future into peril.

The FT reported that Piquemal met EDF chief executive Jean-Bernard Levy several times last week and argued that the company should wait another three years before making the final investment decision on the project.

But Levy said in a statement Monday that EDF intended to take the decision on the project "in the near future".

EDF shares plunged nearly eight percent to 10.01 euros in early trading in Paris on the news of Piquemal's resignation.

EDF said he will be replaced by Xavier Girre, who is currently finance director for France.

Unions at EDF, which is 84.5-percent owned by the French state, have also expressed their concerns over the impact of Hinkley Point on the company and called for the project to be delayed.

Last Thursday, French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron re-affirmed their support for the project after a summit in France.

In October, EDF agreed in principle to build the plant with China General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGN), which will finance a third of the project after French group Areva pulled out amid its own financial problems.

- Untested technology -

The doubts over the project are linked to the largely untested Evolutionary Power Reactor (EPR) technology to be used at Hinkley Point.

There are no working versions of the technology in existence and other EPR plants currently under construction -- such as one in Finland -- are years behind schedule and billions of euros over budget.

John Sauven, director of Greenpeace UK, said Piquemal's resignation should set off "alarm bells" for the French and British governments.

"If the finance chief thinks the project will be a disaster, the optimism from both governments that the deal will be imminent is irrational," he said.

EDF has suffered badly from the global slump in energy prices.

The company slashed its dividend for 2015 after unveiling sharply lower annual net profits of 1.19 billion euros compared with 3.70 billion euros in 2014.

In the longer term, EDF faces an estimated 50-billion-euro bill over the next decade to prolong the life expectancy of France's 58 nuclear power plants.

The group is also taking a financial hit after agreeing to buy Areva's nuclear reactors.

In January, EDF said it would cut five percent of its workforce over the next three years to reduce costs.