Germany Nuclear Power Plant Extension Suspended

03/14/2011 01:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

BERLIN -- Germany's government on Monday temporarily halted plans to extend the life of its nuclear power plants, as two hydrogen explosions at a tsunami-stricken Japanese facility spread jitters about atomic energy safety in Europe.

Neighboring Switzerland suspended its plans to build and replace nuclear plants and Austria's environment minister called for atomic stress tests to make sure Europe's nuclear facilities are "earthquake-proof."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said a decision last year to extend the life of the country's 17 nuclear power stations would be suspended for three months.

"During the moratorium, we will examine how we can accelerate the road to the age of renewable energy," Merkel said.

Monday's decision also means that two older nuclear power plants will be taken off the grid shortly – at least for now – pending a full safety investigation in the wake of the explosions at a nuclear plant in Japan, Merkel told reporters.

The announcement, which came ahead of three German state elections in the next two weeks, fell short of opposition calls to scrap the extension of the plants' lifetimes altogether.

A previous government decided a decade ago to shut all 17 German nuclear plants by 2021 but Merkel's administration last year moved to extend their lives by an average 12 years.

Merkel says Germany needs to keep using nuclear power for now to keep energy affordable as it switches over to renewable power sources, and to ensure it isn't dependent on importing nuclear energy from other countries where safety standards might be lower than those in Germany.

However, the events in Japan "teach us that risks that were considered absolutely improbable are in fact not completely improbable," Merkel said.

Swiss Energy Minister Doris Leuthard said her country would suspend all "blanket authorization for nuclear replacement until safety standards have been carefully reviewed and if necessary adapted." Swiss regulatory authorities had given their stamp of approval to three sites for new nuclear power stations after the plans were submitted in 2008.

"Safety and well-being of the population have the highest priority," said Leuthard, who instructed the Swiss Federal Nuclear Safety Inspectorate to analyze the exact cause of the accidents in Japan and draw up new or tougher safety standards "particularly in terms of seismic safety and cooling."

Leuthard said no new plants can be permitted until those experts report back. Their conclusions would apply not only to planned sites, but also existing plants. Switzerland now has four nuclear power plants that produce about 40 percent of the country's energy needs. It also has nuclear research reactors.

Alarmed by the crisis in Japan, the European Union called for a meeting on Tuesday of nuclear safety authorities and operators to assess Europe's preparedness in case of an emergency.

Austria's Environment Minister Nikolaus Berlakovich called for an EU-wide stress test to check whether nuclear power stations are "earthquake-proof," much like European banks have been tested for their ability to cope with financial shocks.

"With the banks it has shown its value," Berlakovich said. "Now, people are expecting personal security and that is why there has to be a stress test for nuclear power plants."

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said his government won't revise its ambitious program of building new nuclear reactors but will "draw conclusions from what's going on in Japan," according to Russian news agencies.

Nuclear power currently accounts for 16 percent of Russia's electricity generation, and the Kremlin has set a target to raise its share to one-quarter by 2030. Russia would have to build a total of 40 new reactors to fulfill the goal.

Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk also said the country would stick to its plans to build two nuclear power plants and have the first one running by 2022.

As of January, there were 195 nuclear power plants operating in Europe and 19 under construction – 11 in Russia, two each in Bulgaria, Slovakia and Ukraine, and one each in Finland and France, according to the Brussels-based European Nuclear Society.

German popular opinion continues to favor non-nuclear sources of energy. But elsewhere in Europe, people have become increasingly open to using nuclear power as memories fade of the accident 25 years ago at the Soviet-built reactor in Chernobyl, Ukraine. Eastern Europe sees it as a way of gaining a measure of independence from Russia's burgeoning gas and oil empire.


John Heilprin in Geneva, Angela Charlton in Paris, and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this report.