5 Min Read
* EU energy chief raises prospect of nuclear-free Europe
* General agreement that more "stress tests" needed, he says
* Nuclear safety debate goes beyond earthquake risk
By Pete Harrison and Brian Rohan
BRUSSELS/BERLIN, March 15 (Reuters) - Europe's energy chief on Tuesday raised the prospect of a nuclear-free future and said the 27-nation bloc is considering "stress testing" its nuclear power stations to check they can cope with crises.
The developments mark a dramatic turnaround for a continent that had been considering a nuclear revival until this week, when Japan's nuclear disaster highlighted how quickly events can run out of control, and not only after an earthquake. [ID:nLDE72D2FT]
Ministers, diplomats and nuclear experts at an emergency meeting in Brussels agreed that the continent's 143 nuclear plants should be put through more rigorous stress tests.
"There was general agreement for European stress tests for nuclear power plants in the member states," EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger told reporters afterwards. "This a reassessement of all potential risks in the wake of what has happened in Japan -- earthquakes, tsunamis, terror attacks ... hazards including power cuts," he said.
The nuclear revival was prompted by Europe's rush to low-carbon energy to guard against climate change, but public mistrust runs high following the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
Nowhere is the debate more heated than in Germany, where the government went as far as announcing on Tuesday the suspension of operations at all seven of its pre-1980 nuclear plants. [ID:nLDE72E176]
"We must also raise the question -- if we in Europe, in the foreseeable future, can secure our energy needs without nuclear energy," Oettinger told Germany's ARD television.
Nuclear industry body Foratom warned against "knee-jerk" reactions, and other supporters of nuclear power pointed out that Europe is much less geologically active than Japan.
But critics countered that other threats, such as terrorism, could cut a reactor's power supply -- with similar consequences.
Moreover, Bulgaria and Italy are both planning to build reactors in quake-prone areas.
Oettinger's spokeswoman, Marlene Holzner, said Tuesday's meeting focused on safety plans for a number of scenarios.
"What really has made this (Japanese) crisis so heavy and so out of control was the fact that the power supply was completely knocked out," she said.
"What kind of emergency power supply systems are in place? What happens if there were a natural disaster? Do you have in place a second back-up system?"
Though the details of the stress tests are not yet decided, Oettinger said he would take the toughest safety standards in Europe and try to apply them across all 27 member states.
"If we in Germany are examining nuclear plants from the '80s and '90s, we must also raise the question of whether the security check should be done for all atomic plants in Europe."
EU sources said the European Union is tentatively scheduling a second emergency meeting for EU energy ministers next Monday.
Many Europeans are worried about the safety of Soviet-designed reactors in eastern Europe, such as Bulgaria's Kozloduy plant.
Earthquake risk cannot be ruled out in Europe, especially close to the Skopje-Razgrad fault line in Bulgaria, which is considering building a nuclear plant at Belene. [ID:nLDE72D1M5]
And Italy, which is planning to start its own nuclear programme, is also quake prone.
"The European Commission should be more alert on nuclear safety," said Greenpeace nuclear campaigner Jan Haverkamp.
"We still see in the case of Belene that they are relying on bad data and that the Commission accepted a statement saying that there was no seismic risk in northern Bulgaria."
"Fourteen kilometres from the site where Belene is planned, 120 people were killed in 1977 in an earthquake."
The chairman of Bulgaria's nuclear regulator, Sergey Tzotchev, conceded there were issues that needed consideration.
"It's not as seismic as Japan, but there are some problems in this direction," he told reporters in Brussels. (Writing by Pete Harrison; Additional reporting by Eva Dou and Marine Hass; Editing by Louise Ireland)