* Three inquiries ongoing into Areva's purchase of UraMin
* Inquiries by Areva, industry ministry and parliament
* First due to report from mid-February
By Caroline Jacobs
PARIS, Jan 25 A disastrous mining deal and
allegations of spying are bogging down nuclear reactor maker
Areva as it struggles to recover from last year's
Japanese nuclear disaster, and risk embarrassing France's
president as he bids for re-election.
At the centre of the controversy is Anne Lauvergeon, the
ousted boss of the French state-controlled company dubbed
"Atomic Anne" for her feisty personality, and the $2.5 billion
acquisition of a mining start-up that Areva made in 2007.
Areva, the world's biggest nuclear reactor maker, bought
Canada's UraMin to meet buoyant demand for uranium and as the
price of the radioactive heavy metal peaked at $135 per pound,
up from $90 at the end of 2006.
Fast forward, and the deal now looks a huge waste of money.
Getting UraMin's three African mines to produce proved to be
tougher and costlier than expected. Areva's new CEO Luc Oursel
said in December he was writing down nearly their entire value,
along with a wider group restructuring to reflect a slowdown in
demand after March's nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan.
Uranium prices fell to about $50 per pound after Fukushima
and are currently at roughly $52.
The extent and timing of the write-down, four years after
the purchase, have called into question a deal Areva's board and
the state unanimously cleared, prompting three separate ongoing
inquiries: by Areva, the industry ministry and parliament.
What could be seen as misjudgement on Areva's part has
turned into a detective story that involves reports of spying on
Lauvergeon's husband and question marks over the role of senior
Areva executives, as well as the government itself.
Lauvergeon, ousted by the French government in June, found
in her mail late last year an anonymously sent report, dubbed
Pomerol 4 and carried out by ALP Services in 2011, revealing her
spouse Olivier Fric had been spied upon to see if he had
"illegally benefited" from the UraMin deal.
The discovery led to Lauvergeon filing a legal complaint at
a Paris court against unidentified persons and the surfacing of
another report written in 2010 by small French intelligence firm
Apic, which suggests that UraMin may have been a scam.
Both reports, obtained by Reuters, were commissioned by
Areva's security offices but the later ALP one was under the
responsibility of mining chief Sebastien de Montessus, who said
in a newspaper interview the "serious" conclusions of the Apic
study led him to launch a counter-investigation.
Documents obtained by Reuters show notes by ALP's owner
Mario Brero which say: "The mandate is problematic and delicate
because it could involve Olivier Fric and/or Daniel Wouters" who
was the head of development and partnerships at Areva's mining
unit and involved in the UraMin deal.
Montessus denies he or Areva's security service asked ALP to
snoop on people's private lives, let alone use illegal methods.
Lauvergeon, who was the only female chief executive at a
French multinational and reportedly fell out of favour with
French President Nicolas Sarkozy after turning down his offer to
become economy minister in 2007, believes any decision to spy
would have been sanctioned outside the company.
"I cannot believe that he (de Montessus) got into this
adventure on his own," she said at a news conference last week.
"I think one needs a hell of a guarantee, including from outside
the company, to resort to criminality."
"For four years, I have been submitted to multiple attempts
to destabilise me, coming from the highest state levels," she
In a later radio interview she directly accused Sarkozy of
having attacked her as she resisted his attempts to split the
group she built as a one-stop shop for nuclear power among
state-controlled power utility EDF, French engineering
group Alstom and conglomerate Bouygues.
Rene Ricol, who was asked by Sarkozy to look into Areva's
accounts in 2010, told Reuters last week his audit led to Areva
taking a 400 million-euro charge on UraMin and a mention in the
group's accounts that unpromising chemical tests in Namibia
could lead to new write-downs.
But Ricol, an ex-Areva supervisory board member, said he did
not investigate the deal itself.
"If one has elements pointing to a fraud, one has to bring
them to the prosecutor," he said.
Areva has not taken any legal steps to investigate the
"We will await the conclusions of the three supervisory
board members" investigating the deal, an Areva spokeswoman
said, declining to comment further on the situation.
Areva's internal investigation on UraMin is due by the end
of February, before the group's 2011 earnings presentation. The
industry ministry said the outcome of its research could be
ready after Areva's.
Marc Goua, a French socialist parliamentarian appointed to
write a report on the nuclear industry, including the UraMin
deal, also said that the Apic report did not give any proof of
fraud in the UraMin case. His conclusions should be out by the
middle of February.
In the latest twist of events, Areva denied a media report
saying Oursel told a parliamentary hearing behind closed doors
on Tuesday that Areva had left out elements pointing to risks
involved in UraMin's three mines in a presentation to the
Government Shareholding Agency (APE) in 2007.
The report was based on an unidentified source.
(Editing by Mark Potter)