Nuclear Powerhouse

By Lipman, Joanne | Newsweek, March 14, 2011 | Go to article overview

Nuclear Powerhouse


Lipman, Joanne, Newsweek


Byline: Joanne Lipman

France's most powerful businesswoman believes now is the time for the next atomic boom.

The Middle East is in turmoil, oil prices have skyrocketed, the cost of gas is through the roof. All of which is good news--if you're Anne Lauvergeon.

Lauvergeon may be the world's most effective proselytizer for nuclear energy. "Atomic Anne," as she's known, heads France's Areva, the largest builder of nuclear reactors on the planet. The 51-year-old executive, a perennial member of the Forbes most-powerful-women list (recently outranking Melinda Gates, Meg Whitman, and Queen Elizabeth, though trailing Lady Gaga), has been the guiding force behind her country's massive push into nuclear energy, which today fuels 75 percent of all its electricity. And now, she believes, nuclear's next big global moment has arrived. "The cheap price of oil and gas is over for the future," she tells NEWSWEEK. "Nuclear isn't the only solution, but it is part of the solution."

The world may still need convincing.

While a handful of countries rely primarily on nuclear power--tiny Lithuania is 85 percent nuclear--resistance remains strong elsewhere. In the U.S., which is just 20 percent nuclear-powered, President Obama has championed it as a way to wean the country off fossil fuels, devoting $36 billion of his latest budget to nuclear projects. But despite somewhat successful efforts to rebrand nuclear as a clean-energy source, the industry hasn't fully outgrown the stigma of the 1979 Three Mile Island disaster.

If Lauvergeon is correct that now is a turning point, the timing couldn't be better for her. The hard-charging CEO has morphed from a media darling in her home country ("You can't fire me. I am an icon in this country," she reportedly told a minister who criticized her) to an embattled titan, following missteps that included the loss of a $40 billion nuclear project in Abu Dhabi. She has until June, when her current mandate expires, to turn things around--or she will be removed from the government-controlled Areva by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has been a major supporter but appears to have soured on her. …

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