* EU ministers agree to harmonise nuclear safety
* Nuclear 'stress tests' likely to remain voluntary
* No penalties agreed for non-compliance
By Pete Harrison
BRUSSELS, March 21 Europe's 143 nuclear reactors
should face new safety standards, EU ministers agreed on Monday,
but for now any stress tests will remain voluntary and will not
be backed up by penalties.
A renewed push to phase out nuclear energy from Europe has
been led by Germany and Austria.
Even France, which gets 80 percent of its power from nuclear
plants, called for pan-European standards at an emergency
meeting of European Union ministers to discuss safety issues in
the wake of Japan's nuclear crisis.
France also took the opportunity to tout the strong
credentials of its own 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," French industry Minister Eric
Besson said at the meeting In Brussels.
Germany was quick to react to the crisis at Japan's
Fukushima Daiichi plant, announcing last week that it would
suspend operations at all seven of its pre-1980 nuclear plants.
Austria, which banned new nuclear plants in 1974, called for
stress tests to make sure European nuclear plants could cope
with natural catastrophes and infrastructure failures.
Austrian environment minister Nikolaus Berlakovich has gone
further, proposing new cross-border European liability rules for
nuclear accidents so taxpayers do not have to foot the bill.
"In addition to stress tests (for nuclear plants) we should
regulate that all those who profit -- operators, suppliers,
builders, etc. -- should be held liable for all damage caused by
any accidents and across borders as well," he said in a
statement on Sunday.
But ministers did not reach any firm decision on the form of
any stress tests, leaving it for EU leaders to decide at a
summit later this week, EU diplomats said.
"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
"This is not true only of the EU 27 -- everybody has
expressed a great deal of interest in ensuring major
neighbouring countries such as Switzerland and Turkey, Ukraine
or others, continue to develop their nuclear security."
French President Nicolas Sarkozy is expected to press for
those international standards during France's presidency of the
Within Europe, 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).
Once that is done, he plans to update those laws next year,
earlier than had been envisaged.
It remains unclear, however, how many European plants might
fail any stress tests, especially those close to the sea or in
areas of seismic activity.
Campaigners have highlighted vulnerability at France's Blaye
nuclear plant, near Bordeaux, which suffered severe flooding
from the Gironde estuary in 1999.
They also point to the danger of plans to build the Belene
nuclear plant near a fault-line in Bulgaria -- a project that
the Sofia government says it might put on hold. [ID:nLDE72E2HC]
(Additional reporting by Julien Toyer and Michael Shields,
editing by Rex Merrifield and Jane Baird)