Europe Eyes Nuclear Stress Tests as Japan Crisis Worsens

The European Union is planning stress tests on nuclear plants this year to enhance safety standards in the region as Japan struggles with reactors crippled by an earthquake and a tsunami.

EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger said member states and power companies including German utility E.ON AG backed the idea of voluntary tests at a meeting today. Energy ministers, energy firms and regulators were called to Brussels to discuss nuclear security and the situation in Japan, where the government is battling to cool three reactors in the northeast damaged by the worst quake in the country on record.

“We want to look at the risks and safety issues in light of events in Japan,” Oettinger told a press conference after the meeting. “We’ll conduct the tests as soon as we reach an agreement on the criteria and the reach and the extent of them. Recognized, independent experts will be responsible for carrying them out in the course of this year.”

Nuclear power stations, owned by companies including Electricite de France SA and Germany’s RWE AG, currently produce around a third of the electricity in the 27-nation bloc, according to the European Commission. Safety competencies are shared between national authorities and the commission, the EU executive arm.

European Standards

E.ON’s Chief Executive Officer Johannes Teyssen, also present at the conference, welcomed the commission’s initiative to introduce common European standards and said that while nuclear operators were meeting all the applicable security requirements, there was still room for upgrades.

“Yes, lessons need to be learnt,” Teyssen said. “We cannot just rely on present safety standards; they will have to be improved.”

Japan, which has no significant oil and gas resources, is trying to avert a meltdown of fuel rods at Reactor No. 2 in the Fukushima Dai-Ichi station after they became exposed for a second time by a drop in water levels. The March 11 earthquake also crippled Fukushima’s No. 1 and No. 3 reactors.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan said the danger of radiation leaks increased at the nuclear facility, located 135 miles (220 kilometers) north of Tokyo. That sent the nation’s Topix stock index to its biggest two-day drop since 1987 as concern grew over the government’s ability to contain the crisis.

Energy Mix

In Europe, nuclear energy helps the region diversify its energy mix and plays an important role in the EU transition to a low-carbon economy, the commission has said. The bloc wants to cut greenhouse-gas discharges by 20 percent in 2020 and between 80 and 95 percent in 2050.

The shares of nuclear generators declined in Europe today after German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the country will keep its seven oldest nuclear reactors offline as part of the nationwide safety review to run through June. Two of the seven are currently offline, while the remainder total 5.2 gigawatts out of the 20.7 gigawatts installed over Germany’s 17 nuclear plants, according to Bloomberg calculations.

“Political debate is still ongoing among member states, but as things stand today the development in Germany is rather unusual and there are no other imitators yet among other member states,” Oettinger said. “The decision on energy mix remains in the hands of member states.”

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