By GEIR MOULSON and RAF CASERT
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.
The more than 100 Cabinet ministers, regulators and nuclear industry officials looked at how to confront emergencies and what can be done better, with special emphasis on what kind of emergency power supply and backup systems are in place.
Only 13 of the 27 EU nations use nuclear energy but any serious accident would soon involve all.
One of the EU's smaller members, Lithuania, would have to reconsider its plans to build a new nuclear plant and think harder about conventional and alternative energy sources, the country's president said Tuesday.
"Lithuania should have no illusions that it may be able to build something in near future. We have no investor, we have no technologies. It would be very naive nurturing expectations, especially given the current situation and economy crisis, which isn't over yet," President Dalia Grybauskaite told The Associated Press.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country is not an EU member, said he had no plans to suspend a deal with Russia's Rosatom agency for the construction of Turkey's first nuclear power plant.
Dismissing questions on possible dangers, Erdogan said all investments have high risks. "In that case, let's not bring gas canisters to our homes, let's not install natural gas, let's not stream crude oil through our country," he said.
Several dozen anti-nuclear protesters gathered outside Merkel's chancellory early Tuesday, urging her to fully halt the nation's nuclear energy program. Tens of thousands of Germans gathered in cities across the nation on Monday to demand a stop to the use of nuclear energy, including a vigil held in Hamburg.
Ahead of three state elections over the next two weeks, Merkel has performed a partial policy about-turn amid fears sparked by the crisis under way at Japan's tsunami-stricken nuclear power plant.
Nuclear energy has been unpopular in Germany since an explosion at a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986, sent a cloud of radiation over much of Europe.
"It is important for Europeans to realize that you don't need a big earthquake to cause a nuclear catastrophe," Greenpeace spokesman Jan Haverkamp said. It's time we moved away from dangerous and expensive nuclear and truly embraced renewable power."
Moulson reported Berlin. David Rising and Melissa Eddy in Berlin, Susan Fraser in Ankara and Liudas Dapkus in Vilnius, Lithuania, also contributed to this report.
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