Europe's nuclear states pause for safety audit

By Catherine Field

The European Union scheduled a continent-wide scrutiny of nuclear safety and Germany and Switzerland froze plans to extend their atomic energy programmes amid mounting shock in Europe over the crisis in Fukushima.

Energy ministers and national nuclear safety officials from the 27 EU states were joining representatives from the nuclear industry in Brussels today for an emergency conference on reactor safety, the European Commission announced.

The goal was "a comprehensive safety check", a spokesman for the EU executive said. Issues include sharing information on national contingency plans and safety requirements for earthquakes.

In Berlin, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced a three-month freeze on plans to extend the operational lifespan of Germany's nuclear plants until a safety review has been carried out.

Under the previous Social Democrat-Green coalition, Germany decided in 2000 to phase out all 17 nuclear plants by 2020. But Merkel overturned the policy after re-election in 2009 and replaced it with an extension that, for the last of the plants, would expire in the mid-2030s.

"If a highly developed country like Japan, with high safety standards and norms, cannot prevent the consequences for nuclear power of an earthquake and a tsunami, then this has consequences for the whole world," Merkel explained.

"This changes the situation, and it includes Germany. We have a new situation, and it must be thoroughly assessed," she said. "There can be no taboos as far as safety is concerned."

Switzerland, meanwhile, said it was suspending plans to replace its five ageing nuclear plants "until security standards can be carefully re-examined and, if necessary, modified".

The environment ministers of Italy and Poland, speaking in Brussels, said they would look closely at the events in Fukushima as part of national debate about whether to build nuclear plants.

In contrast, France said it had no plans to abandon nuclear generation, which accounts for more than three-quarters of its power needs, the highest share of any country in the world. Britain said it would draw the lessons from Fukushima but did not say whether this would affect its plans to build replacement plants.

"Obviously, there's no question [for France] of withdrawing from nuclear," French President Nicolas Sarkozy was quoted as saying at a meeting of advisers and fellow conservative politicians.

"France has the safest nuclear sector of any country, and by the way that's why we lost a contract in the United Arab Emirates," he said, referring to a US$20 billion ($27.2 billion) deal in 2009. "We were more expensive than the others because we included so much safety in the bid."

The EU has 143 nuclear reactors, accounting for about a seventh of electricity needs. They range from relatively modern 10-year-old installations in France in the west to Soviet-era facilities in the east. Only a few are in earthquake zones, none of which is considered likely to produce the monster 8.9-magnitude shake that hit Japan on Friday.

Nuclear power has been contentious in Europe since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster spewed fallout across parts of the continent.

But resistance had receded in recent years, as Europeans mulled the cost of meeting their UN pledges to cut carbon pollution from fossil fuels and switch to clean, renewable resources. France, Britain and Finland have set down plans for a "next generation" reactor whose defenders say breaks new ground in safety.

- NZ Herald

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