EU to stress test nuclear reactors

The European Union decided Tuesday to apply stress tests to see how its 143 nuclear plants would react in earthquakes and other emergencies.

Program will examine 143 plants

European Commissioner for Energy Guenther Oettinger said Tuesday the stress tests on 143 nuclear plants should follow 'strict standards.' (Yves Logghe/Associated Press)

The European Union decided Tuesday to apply stress tests to see how its 143 nuclear plants would react in earthquakes and other emergencies.

European energy officials also agreed Tuesday with Germany's plans to switch off seven aging reactors — one of them permanently — in the wake of Japan's crisis.

The quick decisions came amid reports that dangerous levels of radiation were leaking from a Japanese nuclear plant crippled by Friday's earthquake and tsunami.

EU Energy Commissioner Guenter Oettinger said the tests should follow "strict standards" that would be set by the second half of the year.

He invited non-EU nations, including Russia and Switzerland, to join the initiative.

U.S. will learn from Japan's experience

At the same time, the Obama administration's most vocal advocate for nuclear power said that the nuclear crisis unfolding in Japan will eventually help the United States strengthen safety at its 104 reactors.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu told a House panel that "the American people should have full confidence that the United States has rigorous safety regulations in place to ensure that our nuclear power is generated safely and responsibly."

But he said that the administration "is committed to learning from Japan's experience."

Earlier Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that seven reactors that went into operation before 1980 would be offline for three months while Europe's biggest economy reconsiders its plans to extend the life of its atomic power plants.

One of them, the Neckarwestheim I reactor, would remain closed for good.

A previous government decided a decade ago to shut all 17 German nuclear reactors by 2021, but Merkel's administration last year moved to extend their lives by an average 12 years. That decision was suspended for three months on Monday.

Merkel noted that not all are currently on the grid, because of maintenance work.

Though earthquakes are rare in Germany and tend to be weak, Merkel said effects of the Japan quake made clear that the measures taken there to protect nuclear plants were insufficient — justifying a review of precautions elsewhere.

"This has shown that the design of the nuclear plants were not sufficient against the forces of nature," she said.

Merkel said she has already spoken with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, agreeing to bring up nuclear safety as a topic at the G20 summit in France at the end of the month.

France to check 58 plants

Separately from the EU stress test initiative, France ordered safety checks of its 58 nuclear plants to determine their capacity to resist earthquakes or floods.

France is more dependent on nuclear energy than any other country, with most of its electricity coming from nuclear reactors. Prime Minister Francois Fillon called it "absurd" to say that explosions at a Japanese nuclear plant will "condemn" nuclear energy.

But there was no avoiding a psychological impact from the events in Japan.

"This might have dark and difficult consequences. But we still really don't know what the results will be. Thereafter we'll be able to judge what is of relevance for our security work," Swedish Environment Minister Andreas Carlgren said ahead of Tuesday's meeting in Brussels.

Several dozen anti-nuclear protesters gathered outside Merkel's chancellory early Tuesday, urging her to fully halt the nation's nuclear energy program.

Tens of thousands of Germans gathered in cities across the nation on Monday to demand a stop to the use of nuclear energy, including a vigil held in Hamburg.

Ahead of three state elections over the next two weeks, Merkel has performed a partial policy about-turn amid fears sparked by the crisis under way at Japan's tsunami-stricken nuclear power plant.

Nuclear energy has been unpopular in Germany since an explosion at a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986, sent a cloud of radiation over much of Europe.

"It is important for Europeans to realize that you don't need a big earthquake to cause a nuclear catastrophe," Greenpeace spokesman Jan Haverkamp said. "It's time we moved away from dangerous and expensive nuclear and truly embraced renewable power."

With files from The Associated Press