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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- French energy giant Areva opened its North American headquarters in Charlotte on Thursday, solidifying its position among the region s cornerstone energy firms.

The headquarters relocation from Bethesda, Md., was announced in March, but Areva has been in Charlotte since 2002. Its staff of 300 engineers, who work in support roles for nuclear power plants, comprise Charlotte s biggest engineering firm, the company says.

The move is expected to bring 130 new jobs over the next four years with average salaries of more than $130,000 a year. Areva employs about 5,000 people in 36 states and three Canadian provinces, and 46,000 worldwide.

The reason for the move was part of our strategy, chief commercial officer Kim Clark said in an interview. The idea was move your headquarters close to your operations. Be close to the people, be close to the customers.

Charlotte s Duke Energy was a key customer. Areva provides services for Duke ranging from fabricating fuel assemblies to dry storage of spent fuel. Areva bought a Duke nuclear engineering subsidiary, Duke Engineering & Services, in 2002.

The move also put Areva in an emerging regional energy hub that employs some 20,000 people. Areva was a founding member of key initiatives to grow the hub, contributing $2 million to UNC Charlotte s Energy Production & Infrastructure Center and helping launch the new E4 Carolinas energy trade association.

The company has already hired about 100 UNCC engineering graduates and works with local schools on science, technology, engineering and math curricula.

Charlotte gives us a presence not only in a developing energy hub but access to partners, not only for the short term but for the long term, said Michael Rencheck, CEO of Areva North America.

In February, Areva reported 2012 financial results that showed upticks in sales, earnings and cash flow over the previous year on revenues of $12.6 billion. The company still reported a 2012 net loss of $135 million, compared to a $3.4 billion loss in 2011, crediting the improvement to a strategic plan to restore its performance.

Luc Oursel, Areva s president and CEO, said the industry faces an increasingly volatile energy future that for now is too dependent on fossil fuels. In addition to its nuclear focus, Areva is also developing a renewable-energy portfolio that includes solar, wind, bioenergy and hydrogen power.

Two U.S. nuclear plants are under construction, in South Carolina and Georgia, and four Areva-designed EPR reactors are planned in China, Turkey, Finland and France. But the long-predicted nuclear renaissance in the United States has yet to flower.

Clark blamed a sour domestic economy and sagging demand for electricity. She predicted more new nuclear plant construction when the economy rebounds.

Meanwhile, the United States has the world s largest fleet of nuclear reactors, and they will need service.

While new-build is important and a focus, I m not concerned about it from a business perspective because we re going to need to support the installed base that is here, Clark said. Most of them are already licensed to go 60 years ... and they re going to need support through that.

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