In this country, eurosceptic free marketeers tend to be big fans of nuclear power – which is ironic, because the dominant players in the nuclear industry are owned by the French state.

As is often the way with state-owned industries, one of these companies – Areva – is in financial difficulty, having just posted a massive loss of €4.8 billion.

Reporting for the New York Times on the profits warning issued by Areva last month, David Jolly and Stanley Reed put this figure in context:

“The loss that Areva warned of on Monday would be substantially larger than its stock-market value of about €3.7 billion, suggesting that the troubled company, plagued by cost overruns and write-downs, may need new funds to continue operating.”

The good news for Areva is that it doesn’t have to worry too much about the long-term commitment of its main shareholder:

“The French government — which has continued to be a proponent of nuclear power when many other big industrial nations have been more equivocal or have come to oppose it outright — owns 87 percent of Areva, and nearly 85 percent of the other big French nuclear power company, EDF, once known as Électricité de France.”

Both Areva and EDF have also enjoyed the support of the British government – which is relying on the two companies to build the first new nuclear power station in this country since Sizewell B:

“EDF’s much-heralded plan to showcase French technology in Britain with a £16 billion, or $24.6 billion, power station at Hinkley Point, England, is also looking uncertain. A decision on whether to proceed with construction, in which would be the first such plant to be built in Britain since the 1990s, might not be made any time soon, EDF said this month.

“Areva is listed as a partner and contractor in the Hinkley Point project, but the company’s recent losses raise questions about how much capital it can contribute. The companies had hoped to have the Hinkley Point plant operating by 2018, but now even 2023 looks optimistic.”

It is extraordinary that a nuclear power station that might not open for another decade (if it gets built at all) is based on a design that is already out-of-date and losing money:

“All of the European projects by Areva or EDF feature the EPR reactor, a 1990s design that was supposed to lock up a big share of global orders for France but is proving exceedingly complex and expensive to build.”

Areva is apparently looking to expand in China, as that is where half of the world’s new nuclear power stations are currently being built. However, one has to ask how it hopes to compete with China’s state-controlled nuclear industry.

The Chinese state – not unlike its French counterpart – is only interested in using the market to advance its own power and influence. Given Beijing’s control over infrastructure policy, safety standards and access to finance, it seems unlikely that Areva will be given a fair run against the domestic competition.

If the French want a foreign government willing to bend over backwards for their nuclear dinosaurs, then they’re better off sticking with their British pals.