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PARIS (Reuters) - French nuclear group Areva (AREVA.PA) will cut spending and improve cooperation with utility EDF and its Chinese partners in an attempt to turn around the loss-making company, but it has postponed a financial restructuring to the end of July.
State-controlled Areva, which posted its fourth consecutive annual loss, said its 2015-2017 financing plan would include "partnerships with an equity component". Chief executive Philippe Knoche did not rule out talks about an equity alliance with EDF. (EDF.PA)
"Today, talks with EDF focus on operating issues ... talks about a capital stake will come later, if necessary," he said.
French Industry Minister Emmanuel Macron, asked about a possible EDF capital investment in Areva, told Le Figaro newspaper it could be "more industrial cooperation, but could go as far as an alliance, including in terms of capital".
Macron noted in particular Areva's reactors activity, from engineering to maintenance.
EDF shares fell 2.7 percent on the prospect of closer ties to a company caught out by a nuclear industry slump and a series of failed investments. Areva shares were up 0.5 percent.
Areva remains strategically and politically important to its 87 percent owner, the French state. It is key to France's nuclear industry, which generates 75 percent of the country's electricity, the highest level in the world.
"Areva's paradox is that it is a world leader in its sector and a company in crisis," Areva Chairman Philippe Varin, appointed with Knoche in January, told reporters.
He said the crisis was due to deficient management of big reactor projects and Areva's failure to adapt to a weaker global market following the 2011 Fukushima disaster when a massive earthquake and tsunami caused meltdowns at Japanese reactors.
Areva plans to boost competitiveness with annual cost savings of 1 billion euros by 2017 and aims to reach profit levels comparable to those of its main competitors within three years.
It will keep capital expenditure below 3 billion euros in total over 2015-17, compared with 4.6 billion in 2012-14, and plans a more extensive asset disposal program than the 450 million euros by the end of 2016 it announced last October.
"This plan will require unprecedented efforts to adjust the group to the reality of its markets," Areva said.
The company has struggled to sell its flagship EPR reactor, its only model. It has not sold a reactor since 2007, though it hopes to finalize a sale of two EPRs in Britain this year.
It also has 5.81 billion euros of net debt following billion-euro provisions on a long-delayed Olkiluoto 3 reactor project in Finland and a soured investment in an African uranium mine.
Areva's 2014 loss soared to 4.83 billion euros, dragged down by charges including 720 million euros of new provisions on Olkiluoto. It lost 494 million euros in 2013, 99 million in 2012, and 2.42 billion in 2011.
Areva said it would strengthen cooperation with EDF, notably in nuclear fuel, and with a planned upgrade of EDF's 58 aging nuclear reactors. Macron noted that EDF sourced two thirds of its uranium conversion outside Europe as Areva finalizes its Comurhex 2 uranium conversion plant in France.
Areva also wants to solidify partnerships with Chinese utilities CGN and CNNC, but said nothing about a long-awaited order for two more reactors in Taishan, where CGN is building two EPRs.
The group targets positive net cash flow in 2018. It was minus 1.34 billion euros last year and will be minus 1.3-1.7 billion euros this year.
Areva also said it would continue its offshore wind operations via its joint venture with Spain's Gamesa GAM.MC.
Reporting by Geert De Clercq; Editing by James Regan and Susan Thomas