Nuclear group wants calm as EU considers tighter rules

BRUSSELS Thu Mar 24, 2011 9:14pm GMT

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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Europe's nuclear industry called for calm on Thursday as EU leaders gathered in Brussels to try to agree safety rules for their nuclear power plants, but Austria's anti-nuclear leader warned of a tough fight ahead.

European governments have reacted swiftly to Japan's nuclear crisis in the wake of its March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

Germany quickly suspended operations at seven ageing nuclear plants; Austria is demanding pan-European 'stress tests'; and Bulgaria has tightened restrictions on its Belene nuclear project near a quake zone.

France, a major exporter of nuclear technology, has tuned its sales pitch to the new political landscape, advocating the safety aspects of its next generation EPR reactors as it competes for business on international markets.

At a meeting dominated by the EU's economic troubles and military action in Libya, the bloc's leaders will also try to settle their differences over the future of nuclear energy.

European nuclear industry body Foratom said it supported an EU initiative to reassess the safety of reactors across Europe and cautioned against hasty decisions based on what happened in Japan.

"It is premature to draw conclusions from the tragedy in Japan with regard to the European nuclear energy programme," it said in an open letter to the EU leaders.

"Until the current situation has been brought fully under control and the nuclear events in Japan have been fully understood, we need to refrain from making any premature policy decisions."

But Austria, which banned new nuclear plants in 1974, said it would urge its neighbours to follow its example.

HARD CONFRONTATION

"I know that we Austrians have lots more support among the people of Europe than among the heads of governments," Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann told reporters outside the summit in Brussels.

"And I know the nuclear lobbies are equipped with so much money and power that this is going to he a hard confrontation that won't be over by tomorrow," he added.

Several EU countries have already given themselves breathing space on the difficult political issue. Italy has announced a one-year pause over plans to relaunch nuclear power after it was banned in 1987.

Spain has shied away from a decision on where to place an unpopular storage bunker for used fuel.

European Union leaders discussed the issue over dinner on Thursday. A draft declaration seen by Reuters shows they will probably sign up to a voluntary safety code on Friday.

But binding nuclear safety rules for all European Union plants appear a long way off.

The EU's executive Commission already tried to set binding rules in 2003, but was rebuffed by member governments.

What is likely to emerge instead are voluntary 'stress tests', whose details will be developed in the months ahead by Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger.

"For the tests to amount to anything more than a fig leaf, the EU should ensure that they are compulsory, transparent, independent and lead to the rapid closure of plants which fail," Greenpeace said in a statement, which also called for nuclear power to be phased out.

(Additional reporting by Ilona Wissenbach in Brussels and Michael Shields in Vienna, editing by Rex Merrifield)

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