THE PROSPECT of a nuclear-free Europe was raised yesterday, after the EU official in charge of energy said stress tests needed to be undertaken.
The development marks a dramatic turnaround for the European Union, whose member states have been at the forefront of a nuclear energy revival.
Yet the unravelling nuclear crisis in Japan has highlighted how quickly events can run out of control, and not only after an earthquake.
European ministers and diplomats agreed that the continent’s 143 nuclear power plants must be put through stress tests, following a high-level emergency meeting.
EU energy commissioner Guenther Oettinger said: “This a reassessment of all potential risks in the wake of what has happened in Japan - earthquakes, tsunamis, terror attacks... hazards including power cuts.”
He added: “We must also raise the question -- if we in Europe, in the foreseeable future, can secure our energy needs without nuclear energy,”
In the heat of the crisis yesterday, the German government ordered the suspension of operations at all seven of its pre-1980 nuclear plants.
However, the nuclear industry body Foratom warned against “knee-jerk” reactions, and other supporters of nuclear power pointed out that Europe is much less geologically active than Japan.
But critics countered that other threats, such as terrorism, could cut a reactor’s power supply – with similar consequences.
Meanwhile in the United States, President Barack Obama’s administration pressed ahead with plans for new nuclear power plants, despite the crisis in Japan.
Energy secretary Steven Chu said lessons could be learned from Japan but that it was not a reason to delay expansion in the US.
“I think those things can proceed,” he said.
President Obama has given his backing to building more nuclear power plants to meet US energy needs, fight climate change and reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
His budget requests up to $36bn (£22.4bn) for loan guarantees to help build new nuclear reactors. Nuclear energy currently provides about 20 per cent of the country’s electricity and that nuclear energy production results in virtually zero emissions.