* 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. [ID:nLDE72G0DD]
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 disaster.
"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 G20 group.
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)