First its new president, Jean-Bernard Levy, said French state utility EDF would delay a decision on its joint French-Chinese nuclear project in the UK, Hinkley Point. That was over a year ago. Then the CFO of EDF, Thomas Piquemal, quit reportedly because he opposed the project on financial grounds. That was a short time ago. Then after a slew of leaked memos, the French government just announced that EDF would be raising more money and the Hinkley decision would now come in September.
David Cameron’s government in the UK backs this exceedingly expensive project and the French government controls both EDF and Areva, the nuclear manufacturer that developed the nuclear system to be used at Hinkley Point. (Two other plants in Finland and China using this technology are still under construction, behind schedule and over budget.) As part of a plan to rescue Areva (which has lost money in each of the past four years and has negative equity, meaning the share-holder investment has been wiped out), EDF agreed, earlier in the year to buy Areva’s nuclear engineering division. Clearly, France views its nuclear ambitions as a matter of national prestige and intends to support Hinkley Point.
Now for the finances. These British nuclear units will cost roughly £18 billion ($27 billion). EDF has already sold a 35 percent share to the Chinese state nuclear company. However EDF still has to find more outside investors and get its ownership of the plant below 50 percent or it will have to consolidate Hinkley Point on its books and show all of the project’s debt on its own balance sheet.
At the end of 2015, long- and short-term debt made up 79 percent of EDF’s capital, an already high number, and two of the three major bond rating agencies have assigned EDF's debt a “negative outlook." EDF also needs more capital to take over Areva, finish the French nukes still under construction and refurbish its own domestic fleet of aging nuclear power stations. All this will take place during what amounts to a financial crisis within the European electricity markets.
So the French government just announced a $4.5 billion capital raising for EDF (the government will buy the lion’s share of the newly issued stock). But from the look of the numbers that share offering constitutes a modest fraction of what is required by a firm that will have to compete more and more in a competitive electricity market.
Last year EDF reported a return on shareholder investment of less than 5 percent (an adequate return for bondholders not stockholders). To reduce the total debt burden to a more manageable 70 percent would require the sale of another $16 billion of stock, a painful process, especially for existing shareholders when returns and share prices are so depressed. More than likely EDF will explore asset sales and other ingenious means to rearrange assets in order to shore up its overly indebted balance sheet.
If we were gamblers we would not wager that EDF will take the obvious first step towards restoring its financial health and cancels the Hinkley project. Of course, if David Cameron loses the Brexit vote (a referendum to take the UK out of the European Union) and is ejected from Number Ten Downing Street, a new Prime Minister might take a more skeptical view of Hinkley Point.
The real point of this story is that nuclear power is not commercially viable but has become a state-sponsored technology. There is nothing wrong with state supported technology. But we could save a lot of time and money by not pretending that it is something else.