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OLKILUOTO, Finland (Reuters) - France still plans to build a 60th nuclear reactor at home despite delays and is eyeing a raft of possible deals for atomic power plants in Europe and emerging countries, French Energy Minister Eric Besson told Reuters on Monday.
The radiation leaks at Japan's quake-hit Fukushima power plant in March have not ended interest in nuclear power, and France hopes to cash in on decades of atomic experience to sell its technology in countries such as India, China, Britain, Poland, South Africa, Turkey and Brazil, he said.
"When looking at the outlook for nuclear power, the diagnosis needs to be qualified," Besson said. "Two years ago we were talking about a nuclear renaissance and now we are talking about a nuclear winter. The reality is in between."
"Some countries have decided to stop their nuclear programs but this is far from being the case everywhere. The list of countries restarting their programs, or considering it, is long," he said after visiting a reactor French group Areva is building in Finland.
India and China, two booming economies faced with surging demand for power from industrial groups and expanding cities, are the biggest and ripest markets France is coveting, followed by Britain and Saudi Arabia, Besson said, adding, however, that decisions in the nuclear sector often took a long time.
"These are very slow processes," Besson said. "Now you also have countries which have the financial means to accelerate the decision making process. For instance, if Saudi Arabia confirmed its interest, one can imagine that financial negotiations would be easier than in other countries."
He said France may have an advantage with its strategy of only selling new-generation nuclear reactors, which meet the international safety standards raised in the wake of Fukushima.
State-controlled reactor maker Areva currently has four reactors under construction: one in Finland, one in France and two in China. All four are so-called EPR reactors.
EPRs are built with a double containment building, a compartment isolating the molten core, six back-up diesel generators and four back-up cooling systems, which Areva says would have resisted Fukushima.
But the design that makes them so tough is causing engineering headaches, and the projects in Finland and France are beset by delays and soaring costs.
Besson said these were teething problems, which he compared with those encountered by the Airbus A380 during the superjumbo aircraft's construction.
"Remember how Airbus was criticized, how people said this plane cost a fortune and would never fly," he said. "Look at the commercial success it has now."
Besson also said France still intended to build a second EPR at home, the country's 60th nuclear plant, and said the Penly project had not been buried despite delays in the investment decision.
French nuclear power operator EDF said last week that delays in putting together legal documentation had forced it to postpone a public enquiry that is compulsory before a construction decision is taken.
The fact that EDF gave no new date for the enquiry and that a presidential election will take place next spring have fueled speculation that Penly had been postponed indefinitely.
"I am convinced Penly will go ahead," Besson said, blaming delays on the safety tests EDF was ordered to carry out on its nuclear power plants in the wake of Fukushima.
"This means the public enquiry will be made in 2012 instead of late 2011. Now should we launch an enquiry during a period of presidential elections, I don't think so. So this will probably be after the election."
Editing by James Regan