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EU Nuclear Tests to Start in Months as Nations Spar Over Rules

Nuclear ‘Stress Test’ Rules Sought by EU Emergency Meeting
An automobile leaves the RWE AG nuclear power plant in Lingen, Germany. Photographer: Hannelore Foerster/Bloomberg

European Union energy ministers predicted it would take months to start EU-wide nuclear “stress tests” as Germany led a push for stringent common rules and said national leaders must tackle the matter later this week.

The energy ministers from the 27-nation EU said checks on the region’s 143 atomic plants following Japan’s nuclear accident would probably get under way in the second half of this year on a voluntary basis. The tests may cover threats from earthquakes, floods, airplane crashes and terrorists as well as reactors’ cooling systems and their age, said EU officials.

“I’m not sure that all countries will proceed in as demanding a manner as we have planned in Germany,” German Economy Minister Rainer Bruederle, who also handles energy policy, told reporters in Brussels after the emergency EU meeting. He said his support for mandatory European tests failed to win the backing of some participants.

Nuclear power stations owned by companies including Germany’s RWE AG and Electricite de France SA produce a third of the electricity in the EU, which wants to draw up common criteria to gauge nuclear safety in response to the Japanese crisis. The risk of a nuclear meltdown in Japan after a March 11 earthquake and tsunami triggered public protests in Europe against atomic power and prompted Germany to order a temporary halt to the country’s seven oldest reactors.

Support for Merkel

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has urged uniform standards across the EU and said she will raise the issue at a March 24-25 meeting of the bloc’s leaders. She decided last week that Germany will keep its seven oldest nuclear reactors offline as part of the nationwide safety review to run through June.

Merkel’s Christian Democratic party dropped votes and the Greens doubled their support yesterday in the first electoral test of Germany’s response to Japan’s accident. The vote in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt was the second of seven German regional ballots this year.

EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger said the bloc must come up with a checklist reflecting the concerns of European and national authorities, including in countries that don’t produce atomic energy. Oettinger, Bruederle and Hungarian National Development Minister Tamas Fellegi recommended that non-EU nations bordering the bloc such as Switzerland and Turkey also be involved in the tests.

“We should aim to have this assessment under way before the end of the year,” said Fellegi, who chaired the energy meeting because Hungary holds the EU’s rotating presidency. “We should avoid any hasty decisions.”

Lower Emissions

It’s up to national governments in the EU to decide whether to use nuclear power, which is produced in 14 member countries. Safety is a shared responsibility between national and EU authorities.

France, which gets about 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear plants, stressed that national authorities are responsible for deciding on the life of atomic plants. French reactors will remain a “fundamental” source of energy for the country, said Industry Minister Eric Besson.

“Because the safety of nuclear-power plants has direct consequences across borders, it is important that there will be a uniform stress test,” said Dutch Economic Affairs Minister Maxime Verhagen. “If the outcome of the stress test gives reason to act, measures have to be taken.”

Atomic power helps the EU both to diversify its energy mix and, because it emits almost no carbon dioxide, to shift to a low-carbon economy, according to the European Commission, the bloc’s regulatory arm. The EU is on track to reduce greenhouse gases including CO2 by 20 percent in 2020 from 1990 levels and is considering a deeper reduction over the period.

Nuclear-Safety Law

Bruederle said a “reasonable dialogue” is needed among EU governments on common stress tests. He refused to speculate about whether Germany’s checks on its seven oldest atomic plants could lead one or more of them to be shut permanently.

EU governments in 2009 set their first common standards for the construction and operation of atomic reactors, saying the industry’s growth requires steps to ease public anxiety about the risks. A draft law proposed last year would broaden EU safety oversight by setting bloc-wide standards for nuclear-waste disposal.

Oettinger said he would recommend a tightening next year of the 2009 EU nuclear-safety law.

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