French Educating China Nuclear Experts

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PARIS—France has long exported its nuclear power technology. Now, as global demand wavers, the country is pitching its nuclear education too.

In five years, about 100 Chinese nuclear engineers will graduate from the Franco-Chinese Institute for Nuclear Energy in southern China’s Guangdong province. Trained by top French professors, the graduates will leave the school fluent in French and with master’s degrees in nuclear engineering.

French Educating China Nuclear Experts

Xinhua/Zuma PressChina is building 28 of the 62 nuclear reactors under construction across the world. Above, work on a nuclear plant in Guangdong province in 2010.

For France, which is financing about half the cost of the recently opened university, the bet is a bold one: that these Chinese students will go on to become top nuclear officials who will practice high safety standards and hand lucrative contracts to French nuclear companies.

“We want to share our teaching methods,” says Marianne Laigneau, the head of human resources at French state-owned power company Électricité de France SA, which pays roughly 10% of the school’s €4 million ($5.2 million) annual budget. “But the aim is also to train future Chinese decision makers who can facilitate partnerships with France.”

Many businesses, as diverse as aeronautics groups and McDonald’s Corp., have set up colleges in China to train future employees and partners. But for France, which carefully guards its nuclear know-how, the stakes are higher in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in Japan.

“If China’s investment in nuclear [energy] fails either from an industrial or safety point of view, it will impact France’s strategic choices,” says Bernard Bigot, the head of the French Atomic Energy Commission, the agency that masterminded the country’s nuclear expansion. “You only have to look at the impact that Fukushima had on France to understand that if a country invests in nuclear it has to do it in an exemplary manner.”

The opening of the school underscores the lengths France is going to ensure its four-decade-long, €250 billion investment in nuclear energy continues to pay off. It also shows how the fate of France’s nuclear industry is becoming increasingly entwined with China’s.

Global safety concerns over nuclear power increased after Japan’s March earthquake and subsequent radiation leak at the Fukushima plant. Now, ahead of elections next year, France’s political consensus around nuclear energy is crumbling. The opposition Socialist Party has said it would close 24 of France’s 58 reactors by 2025 if it is elected, reducing the country’s dependence on nuclear energy by about one-third.

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