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Too hot to handle? EU meets to examine nuclear energy safety

Nuclear power policy varies widely across the EU. But Japan's crisis at multiple reactors has reinvigorated anti-nuclear states and led the bloc to consider closer energy coordination on the continent.

Nuclear stacks emit steam

Most EU states use some amount of nuclear power

Nuclear experts and European Union officials meet in Brussels on Tuesday to ask themselves whether they can one day do without nuclear energy, following the earthquake- and tsunami-induced disaster at nuclear power plants in Japan.

EU Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger called the meeting to expand the dialogue beyond the national level. He said EU energy ministers would meet with power companies and oversight authorities to question how long Europe will need nuclear energy.

"We must also raise the question as to whether we in Europe, in the foreseeable future, can secure our energy needs without nuclear energy," Oettinger told German public television ARD.

German plans screech to a halt

Under intense pressure from growing anti-nuclear sentiment among German voters, Chancellor Angela Merkel made a dramatic change of course on Monday and placed a three-month moratorium on her government's planned extension of the lifespan of German nuclear plants. She also called on state authorities to conduct new security checks at their plants.

Angela Merkel

Growing pressure forced Merkel to rethink her turn toward nuclear power

Oettinger, Germany's representative on the European Commission and a member of Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats, said the German moratorium should be taken into consideration by other EU member states.

"When a large member state like Germany reexamines atomic energy, this can have consequences at the European level," he said. "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."

France : 'We mustn't get carried away'

While most EU states use some nuclear energy, support and opposition for it varies widely across the bloc. France is the most dependent on nuclear power in Europe, with 58 reactors providing three-quarters of the country's electricity.

French Environment Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet said on Monday that French nuclear reactors were well-protected against natural catastrophes, and that the disputed plant in Fessenheim, near the German border, could withstand a 6.7-magnitude earthquake.

"What's happening in Japan is undoubtedly a very serious nuclear accident," she said. "But we mustn't get carried away in the EU."

Austria against neighbors

Meanwhile Austria remains one of Europe's most anti-nuclear states, also having sharply criticized neighbors Slovakia and Slovenia for keeping their own reactors running. Austrian Environment Minister Nikolaus Berlakovich said neighboring states were "banking on nuclear energy" and called for stress tests at nuclear plants across the continent.

Anti-nuclear logo projected on building by Greenpeace

Anti-nuclear activists have been empowered by the crisis in Japan

"We are demanding maximum safety guarantees for the Austrian people, and all of our neighbors must be able to provide the same guarantee for their citizens," he said.

Italy, which has been nuclear-free since 1987, has been considering a reinvestment. But Italian Environment Minister Stefania Prestigiacomo said Japan's nuclear crisis was causing "great concern."

Poland gets 94 percent of its electricity from coal, the most of any EU country. A government spokesman said plans to build two nuclear reactors would remain unchanged, while Environment Minister Janusz Zaleski said Japan's crisis would "prompt debate."

Authors: Andrew Bowen, Bernd Riegert
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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