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EDF finance chief resigns over opposition to UK nuclear project

07 March 2016

French state-owned energy group EDF has confirmed that its finance director has quit ahead of an expected final investment decision on the £18bn Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant in the UK. Thomas Piquemal stepped down because he feared the project could jeopardise EDF's financial position, according to reports.

Image: A Franck
Image: A Franck

Jean-Bernard Levy, chairman and chief executive of EDF, said that he regretted the "hastiness" of Mr Piquemal's departure. The company's board is expected to finalise in April how it will fund the project after postponing the decision a number of times.

Levy said the board was studying the investment in Hinkley to ascertain the best way to finance the power plant. He added that EDF aimed to announce a final investment decision "soon".

Last month, Chris Bakken, EDF’s Nuclear New Build director and head of the UK project, said he was leaving to pursue other opportunities.

The Guardian said the resignation of such an important figure on the EDF board will make it much harder for the remaining executives to proceed with Hinkley in the short term.

But according to the BBC, Piquemal’s resignation could mean that political expediency has won out over the many financial or technical concerns over the £18bn project. Both the UK and French governments are committed to Hinkley, as is EDF CEO Levy, and the finance director’s resignation removes a trenchant critic of the scheme, said to be the most expensive power station project in the world.

In October last year, EDF agreed a deal under which China General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGN) would pay a third of the cost of the £18bn project in exchange for a 33.5% stake. But according to reports, EDF is struggling to find the cash for its remaining 66.5% stake and is seeking help from the French government, which owns 84.5% of EDF.

EDF is also facing opposition from French union officials, who have suggested that investment in Hinkley should be delayed until 2019. The CFE-CGC Energy union said there were problems with a similar reactor design in France that needed to be solved.

As well as huge debts, EDF is grappling with a collapse in power prices in France and huge cost overruns on another nuclear project in France using the same reactor technology planned for Hinkley. It also needs to spend €55bn to upgrade its ageing French nuclear plants, €5bn on a smart meter rollout and several billion euros to take over and restructure the reactor unit of Areva, a loss-making state-owned French nuclear engineering company.

EDF admitted recently it was going to have to sell a range of assets to raise cash. Piquemal is believed to be concerned that the chief executive, Levy, wants to proceed with Hinkley before those sales have been completed.

The new Hinkley plant was originally due to open in 2017, and it has come under fire for both its cost and delays to the timetable for building.

The UK government has also been criticised for guaranteeing a price of £92.50 per megawatt hour of electricity – almost three times the current cost - for the electricity Hinkley will produce for 35 years.

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