Stress tests to be done on nuclear plants

EU nuclear stress tests will be voluntary

EU ministers have agreed that European nuclear reactors should undergo safety stress tests - but they will be voluntary.

Germany and Austria have led a charge to phase out nuclear energy while France has called for pan-European standards at an emergency meeting of EU ministers discussing safety issues in the wake of Japan’s nuclear crisis.

Ministers have not reached a firm decision about stress tests on Europe’s 143 nuclear reactors, leaving it for EU leaders to decide at a summit later this week.

"There are very few questions where national governments and parliaments have such a disparity of views as with nuclear energy. But everyone agrees on one thing: security has to be top quality," said EU energy commissioner Guenther Oettinger.

"All ministers today are trying to set up a common set of European security standards to minimise the risk of any disaster.”

Germany has decided to suspend operations at all seven of its pre-1980 nuclear plants, while Austria, which banned new nuclear plants in 1974, has called for the tests to make sure European nuclear plants can cope with natural catastrophes and infrastructure failures.

Austrian environment minister Nikolaus Berlakovich has proposed new cross-border European liability rules for nuclear accidents so taxpayers do not have to foot the bill.

"In addition to stress tests we should regulate that all those who profit - operators, suppliers, builders - who should be held liable for all damage caused by any accidents and across borders as well," he said.

"All ministers today are trying to set up a common set of European security standards to minimise the risk of any disaster.

France, which gets 80 percent of its power from nuclear plants, has emphasised the strong credentials of its nuclear technology, which it hopes to sell to its neighbours.

"France already has, in the EPR (reactor), a product considered third generation, so we have a number of assets when we talk of the future of nuclear," said French industry minister Eric Besson.

Oettinger will push governments to adopt fully the existing EU Directive on Nuclear Safety, which gives legal teeth to the safety standards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and will agree penalties for non-compliance.

However it is unclear how many European plants might fail any stress tests, especially those close to the sea or in areas of seismic activity.

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