EU reaches agreement for stress tests on nuclear plants in wake of Japan crisis

Associated Press
Tuesday, March 15, 2011; 12:53 PM

BRUSSELS - Shocked into action by Japan's atomic crisis, European energy officials agreed Tuesday to apply stress tests on nuclear power plants and Germany moved to switch off seven aging reactors - one of them permanently.

Energy ministers, nuclear regulators and industry officials meeting in Brussels found "general agreement" on the need for such tests to check whether the European Union's 143 nuclear plants could withstand earthquakes and other emergencies, EU Energy Commissioner Guenter Oettinger said.

Oettinger said the tests should follow "strict standards" that would be set by the second half of the year. He invited non-EU nations including Russia and Switzerland to join the initiative.

Earlier Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that seven reactors that went into operation before 1980 would be offline for three months while Europe's biggest economy reconsiders its plans to extend the life of its atomic power plants. One of them, the Neckarwestheim I reactor, would remain shut down for good.

A previous government decided a decade ago to shut all 17 German nuclear reactors by 2021, but Merkel's administration last year moved to extend their lives by an average 12 years. That decision was suspended for three months on Monday.

Merkel noted that not all are currently on the grid, because of maintenance work.

Though earthquakes are rare in Germany and tend to be weak, Merkel said effects of the Japan temblor made clear that the measures taken there to protect nuclear plants were insufficient - justifying a review of precautions elsewhere.

"This has shown that the design of the nuclear plants were not sufficient against the forces of nature," she said.

Merkel said she has already spoken with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, agreeing to bring up nuclear safety as a topic at the G-20 summit in France at the end of the month.

Separately from the EU stress test initiative, France ordered safety checks of its 58 nuclear plants to determine their capacity to resist earthquakes or floods. France is more dependent on nuclear energy than any other country, with most of its electricity coming from nuclear reactors. Prime Minister Francois Fillon called it "absurd" to say that explosions at a Japanese nuclear plant will "condemn" nuclear energy.

But there was no avoiding a psychological impact from the events in Japan.

"This might have dark and difficult consequences. But we still really don't know what the results will be. Thereafter we'll be able to judge what is of relevance for our security work," Swedish Environment minister Andreas Carlgren said ahead of Tuesday's meeting in Brussels.

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