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BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel drew accusations on Tuesday of trickery for suspending her nuclear energy policy, as the opposition and media said she was trying to avoid a regional election disaster.
But conservative politicians rallied to her side as Japanese engineers fought to avert a nuclear disaster, with one formerly enthusiastic supporter of atomic power questioning whether the entire European continent could live without it.
"Angela Merkel opens her anti-nuclear election campaign," wrote the business daily Handelsblatt on Tuesday.
Merkel astonished German politicians on Monday by suspending an unpopular coalition decision taken only last autumn, under which the life of Germany's 17 nuclear power plants would be extended by years.
"We have a new situation," Merkel said when announcing the three-month suspension following Japan's earthquake and tsunami disaster which provoked a crisis at the Fukushima nuclear complex.
"The apocalyptic extent of the destruction is not only an incomprehensible catastrophe for Japan but it also has consequences for Europe and Germany."
Merkel summoned on Tuesday the premiers of every German state with a nuclear plant to discuss the new policy, which will probably mean the rapid closure of older reactors.
But her policy drew cynicism from the opposition. "She just wants to get through the provincial assembly elections," said Social Democrat leader Sigmar Gabriel, accusing her of playing political tactics with people's fears.
"The whole thing doesn't make sense and is really just a transparent trick," he told ARD television.
Merkel faces three regional elections in the next fortnight, including in the wealthy southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, which has long been a stronghold of Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU).
Even before the Japanese crisis the CDU faced losing control in Baden-Wuerttemberg, which would be a political disaster for Merkel. Last month her party suffered a thrashing in elections in Hamburg, Germany's richest city.
A close Merkel ally, EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger said on Friday that Europe needed to consider whether it could live without nuclear energy one day.
Oettinger was CDU premier of Baden-Wuerttemberg and a stout defender of nuclear energy before Merkel sent him to Brussels as Germany's EU Commissioner.
On Tuesday his enthusiasm seemed to have waned. "We must also raise the question of if we in Europe, in the foreseeable future, can secure our energy needs without nuclear energy," he told broadcaster ARD.
One of the plants likely to close rapidly under Merkel's suspension is the Neckarwestheim I reactor in Baden-Wuerttemberg, operated by EnBW.
Closure would be popular with many people in the state. Last Saturday, at least 50,000 protesters formed a 45-km (27-mile) human chain from the state capital of Stuttgart to the plant to demand its demise.
Merkel won some early support for the suspension and for checks of every German nuclear plant. A poll released by ARD showed 80 percent support for the decision, with 53 percent favouring the closure of all German reactors as soon as possible.
Additional reporting by Brian Rohan, Gernot Heller and Thomas Seythal; editing by Janet Lawrence