SACRAMENTO — A French company and a group of Central Valley investors announced Tuesday that they had signed a letter of intent to build one or two nuclear power plants near Fresno.

The agreement with Areva, a Paris nuclear engineering company, is expected to be finalized in March, said John Hutson, chief executive of the Fresno Nuclear Energy Group, a partnership of local business executives and farmers. Once that's done, the two potential partners would begin a site selection and evaluation process that could take as long as two years, he said.

Environmentalists were skeptical that the agreement would go anywhere. They point out that California has a three-decade-old law that bans the construction of nuclear power plants unless the state can certify that the federal government has come up with a plan for the permanent storage of spent nuclear fuel, which is highly radioactive. No such facility exists in the country, and plans to open one at Yucca Mountain in Nevada have been put on hold by the Obama administration.

The California ban doesn't trouble the California investors.

"The law is archaic and will fall by the wayside on its own, in our opinion," Hutson said.

Early plans call for building one or two 1,600-megawatt power plants using European pressurized reactor technology. The cost is expected to range between $5 billion and $8 billion, Hutson said. He said no financing had been secured at this stage of the project.

The group anticipates using treated waste water from local municipalities to cool the reactors, Hutson sad. Nuclear waste could be sent to France for reprocessing into new fuel, he said.

The European technology is awaiting certification by U.S. regulators, while such plants are under construction in France, Finland and China. A half-dozen U.S. power companies have expressed interest in building European-technology generating stations once the French system is certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But in California, environmentalists said they doubted that the Fresno nuclear group could gain the necessary federal and state permits to build one or more nuclear power plants.

"I would not invest or bet money on nuclear plants being permitted and having a source of financing two years from now," said Jim Metropulos, a senior advocate in Sacramento with the Sierra Club.