March 14, 2011 / 4:26 PM / 6 years ago

Europe split over nuclear safety amid Japan crisis

<p>File picture dated February 28, 2008 of Ringhals nuclear power plant in Varberg.Scanpix/Bertil Ericson</p>

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Austria on Monday called for European nuclear power plants to face stress tests to reassure people worried by the crisis in Japan while Britain and France urged calm.

Nuclear power has been poised for a revival as Europe strives to cut climate-warming carbon emissions and gas imports, but public mistrust still runs high, with the Chernobyl accident in 1986 still strong in many Europeans' minds.

Public confidence in the industry looked set to fall as Japan scrambled on Monday to avert a meltdown at a stricken nuclear plant, days after an earthquake and tsunami.

The 27-member EU was already sharply divided, with France seeking to export its nuclear expertise, but Austria strongly opposed to any further expansion in its neighborhood.

Nowhere is the issue more controversial than in Germany, where demonstrators have taken to the streets after the government extended the lifespan of Germany's 17 nuclear power stations.

Germany is on the brink of suspending the unpopular extension plan, government sources said on Monday.

Austria's Nikolaus Berlakovich called for safety checks at a meeting of environment ministers in Brussels on Monday.

"The people in Europe and Austria ask themselves how secure are our reactors in Europe, around Austria," he told reporters. "And that's why I will ask today in the meeting of ministers for a stress test for European nuclear power stations."

"It must be quickly proven how earthquake-proof the nuclear power stations are, how do the cooling systems work, what is the reactors' protection. That must come quickly to reassure the people."

Slovak Environment Minister Jozsef Nagy said he would support a Europe-wide stress test for power plants and suggested nations could be looking at a milestone in nuclear energy.

"If there would a European stress-test initiative, I would support that," Nagy said in Bratislava.

"I do not see this as a milestone in the energy sector, but this might be a milestone in nuclear energy, so we will learn and introduce technologies that are resilient to similar, or even stronger, natural events."

Britain, which is planning up to 16 gigawatts of new nuclear power, said it was difficult to draw parallels with Japan, because Europe is not as geologically active.

"Safety comes number one," British secretary of state for energy Chris Huhne told Reuters. "It's absolutely the first priority and that's why I have asked our nuclear regulator to do a report on the facts of the Japanese case, if there is anything we can learn from the Japanese experience."

"Of course the difference with Japan is pretty dramatic," he added. "The biggest earthquake that the UK has ever suffered was back in 1931 and the Japanese earthquake, I am sorry to say, is 130,000 times stronger than the strongest ever recorded in the UK."

The discussion came after EU energy commissioner Guenther Oettinger called a meeting of EU nuclear experts to discuss the situation on Tuesday.

French environment minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet also stressed that Japan's nuclear crisis occurred in "very exceptional circumstances."

"Those questions could only be asked on the basis of experience, once we have all the information, once the crisis is over," she told reporters in Brussels. "We shouldn't, at a European level, fall in the indecency of an over-reaction while the crisis in unveiling."

Additional reporting by Martin Santa in Bratislava, editing by Rex Merrifield and Jason Neely

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