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Nuclear to stay, says EU despite battle over safety testing

Nuclear to stay, says EU despite battle over safety testing

Günther Oettinger - Photo EP

(BRUSSELS) - Nuclear energy is here to stay so European Union leaders need to spell out clearly how to revamp safety guidelines at a key summit, the bloc's energy commissioner said Wednesday.

"We are looking for clear instructions from EU leaders meeting on Thursday and Friday," Guenther Oettinger told a hearing of European Parliament lawmakers, after diplomats revealed deep divisions on reactor stress tests.

As workers in Japan struggle to cool an overheating core at the earthquake-hit Fukushima nuclear plant, German Chancellor Angela Merkel reopened EU wounds ahead of the two-day summit when she painted her vision of a nuclear-free future.

Merkel said the overriding lesson Germany should learn from the nuclear consequences of Japan's earthquake and tsunami is "the earlier the exit, the better," from the power-generating technology.

A former environment minister, Merkel added pointedly that nuclear is only a "transitory" option for states' energy needs.

With some 30 percent of electricity furnished by nuclear power plants, however, fellow German Oettinger said the technology will remain for the "short, medium and long term."

And he warned it is "not enough" to agree only a loose commitment to develop tests for reactors, many of which are decades old.

Alongside the Libyan and euro debt crises, the EU leaders will discuss how best to run new 'stress tests' to check security at its 143 reactors.

Foreign and energy ministers failed in special sessions in Brussels this week to settle the EU's approach.

Draft summit conclusions now lay the onus on the inter-governmental European Nuclear Safety Regulatory Group to develop the tests, with the "full involvement" of EU states.

While they are expected to "encourage and support" similar tests worldwide, for plants old and new, diplomats said positions varied hugely.

Austria wanted obligatory tests, ministers from Britain, Slovenia and Sweden argued there was "no need for any new testing mechanism."

In Helsinki on Wednesday, the head of the French nuclear safety authority, Andre-Claude Lacoste, likewise insisted there is "no reason for us to shut down any nuclear plants in France," after calls from neighbouring, non-EU Swiss authorities.

France, with 58, has by far the largest number of EU reactors, and wants other states to match its national standards.

Merkel's intervention, ahead of a key state election this weekend in Baden-Wuerttemberg, home to four nuclear reactors, was just the latest in a series of unilateral pronouncements that have provoked criticism both by polling opponents and EU partners.

Diplomats told AFP that Rome complained that an "emotional" announcement by Berlin of the temporary closure of its seven oldest reactors had "complicated" a June 12 referendum in Italy on plans to start building nuclear power stations there from 2014.

The Italian government on Wednesday declared a one-year moratorium on these plans.

Meanwhile, the Czechs, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia said stress tests should also be "included in accession negotiations," the diplomats added.

That was a reference to new installations in EU-candidate Turkey, ministers' principal concern alongside Belarus and Russia.

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