BRUSSELS -- EU Energy Commissioner Gunther Oettinger has announced that EU-wide stress tests on nuclear power plants will be conducted in the wake of the nuclear disaster unfolding at the Fukushima power plant in Japan.
The decision came after Oettinger summoned energy ministers from all 27 EU member states, as well as representatives from nuclear operators and regulators, to an emergency meeting in Brussels to discuss safety issues at European nuclear power plants.
"I am grateful that there has been a general agreement this afternoon to introduce stress tests for Europe's nuclear power plants in all EU member states," Oettinger said.
The stress tests consist of computer simulations to determine how the facilities would cope with various natural disasters, including earthquakes and tsunamis. The test scenarios will differ, depending on whether the nuclear plant is situated on the coast or near places at risk of earthquakes.
Oettinger said more meetings between energy experts have been scheduled for next week to determine the criteria and standards for the testing. He said he hopes the tests can be carried out "as soon as possible," even though they're more likely to happen sometime after June.
The tests will be voluntary for member states, since the EU lacks legal power to initiate binding resolutions in energy matters. Oettinger said, however, that there is a consensus among member states to take part and that all of the 143 nuclear power plants throughout the bloc would be tested.
Industry representatives were also supportive of the idea of stress tests. Johannes Teyssen, CEO of the German energy giant E.ON, said safety standards must be upgraded.
EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger: "Practically everything is out of control."
"There are lessons to be learned without any doubt," Teyssen said. "We cannot just rely on present safety standards. They do need to be improved and we will do anything to support this initiative and to improve the safety standards [and to make them] applicable."
The EU has also initiated a discussion with the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about nuclear-plant stress tests on a global level. Officials said neighboring countries such Russia, Switzerland, and Turkey would be invited to participate in the European exercise.
The March 15 decision came as German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that her country would temporarily shut down its oldest nuclear reactors.
"In light of the situation [in Japan], we will carry out a safety check of all nuclear plants," Merkel said. "The federal government and the states [governments] agreed on that. Those nuclear power plants which began operation before 1980 will be provisionally shut down for the duration of the [three-month] moratorium. They will be out of order."
The decision will affect seven reactors.
On March 14, Merkel announced a three-month suspension of a decision taken last year to postpone until the mid-2030s the date when the last of Germany's 17 reactors are switched off.
'Out Of Control'
Most Germans oppose nuclear energy, according to opinion polls. Merkel is facing key regional elections in coming weeks.
Teyssen refused to speculate whether the chancellor's move would lead to power shortages in Germany but admitted that the risk of that may have increased.
"I think it is not wise for anybody at this given time to [predict] such a status because it obviously depends on several factors of demand and supply, of availability of transmission grids, of a lot of issues," Teyssen said. "We have seen some years ago that just a failure of just one transmission line can cause a big failure of a system, and obviously with this new imbalance of the system, minor accidents can have major implications."
Earlier, Oettinger characterized Japan's nuclear disaster as an "apocalypse" and said Tokyo has almost lost control of events at the Fukushima power plant.
"Practically everything is out of control," Oettinger said, adding, "I cannot exclude the worst in the hours and days to come."
By. Rikard Jozwiak
Copyright (c) 2010. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.