Thursday

1st Dec 2022

Japan earthquake poses questions about EU nuclear safety

  • Sendai, Japan, one of the area's worst hit by a tsunami caused by Friday's earthquake (Photo: US Navy)

Nuclear experts from EU member states will gather in Brussels this week to discuss the damage caused to Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant and the potential ramifications for Europe, after a powerful earthquake ripped though the Asian country on Friday (11 March).

In an early indication of mounting public hostility to nuclear energy as a result of the Japanese catastrophe, 60,000 people took to the streets in Germany on Saturday, with Austria calling for a series of nuclear 'stress tests' to ensure the safety of European plants.

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A second explosion rocked the Fukushima plant on Monday at the plant's No. 3 reactor building, sending out an orange fireball, followed by plumes of smoke. Experts said the explosion was due to the build-up of nitrogen gas in the reactor's protective casing, a similar cause to Saturday's initial explosion.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said radiation levels remained "normal" however, but in Europe the political fall-out was quickly felt over the weekend.

EU energy commissioner Gunther Oettinger will meet with national nuclear safety authorities, nuclear power plant vendors and operators early this week: "to jointly assess the consequences of the accident as well as the lessons that can be drawn from the events in Japan."

"If required, pro-active actions will be taken to address to situation in the EU," added the European Commission in a statement.

Mr Oettinger is known to be a supporter of nuclear energy, with his candidacy broadly welcomed in Brussels last year where officials are keen to diversity energy resources away from the bloc's current dependence on Russian gas.

Commission proposals last November said EU member states must bury their radioactive waste deep underground in future, but the measures were attacked by environmental groups who said the plans were a PR exercise to persuade Europeans that nuclear waste can be dealt with.

In Germany, protest organisers said some 60,000 people demonstrated against nuclear power on Saturday in the southern German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg. The state, home to four of Germany's 17 nuclear reactors, is set for regional elections on 27 March.

A loss for Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union party would further strengthen the opposition's hold of the Bundesrat, Germany's upper chamber.

"No reactor in the world is prepared for the case of a meltdown," Green Party MP Juergen Trittin said on live television. The former environment minister was involved in negotiations with energy utilities during the last decade on a phasing out of nuclear power, but the plans were later watered down by Merkel's government.

On Sunday the Austrian government said it was in favour of carrying out 'stress tests' on Europe's nuclear power plants, similar to the examinations being carried out on the region's banks after the financial crisis.

Austrian environment minister Nikolaus Berlakovich said he would raise the subject at a meeting of EU environment ministers in Brussels on Monday. We need to check "the safety of nuclear plants in the event of an earthquake and the state of their cooling systems and reactor confinement," he said.

In Finland, finance minister Jyrki Katainen Sunday said he hoped events in Japan would not trigger hasty reactions in the Nordic country. "It is too early to draw any conclusions," said the leader of the conservative National Coalition Party.

A day earlier however, Paavo Arhinmaki, leader of the opposition Left Alliance, told a party conference that no further nuclear reactors should be built in Finland, citing events in Japan where a massive clean-up operation is currently underway.

The official death-toll after Friday's 8.9 magnitude earthquake is around 1,500 people, but the figure is expected to rise much higher. Police in the north-eastern Miyagi prefecture, one of the worst hit areas, estimated on Sunday that at least 10,000 people had been killed in their district alone, mostly by drowning.

EU leaders on Friday asked high representative Catherine Ashton to "mobilise all appropriate assistance" for Japan, whose prime minister, Naoto Kan, has said his country is facing "the most severe crisis since World War II".

Watch British conservative MEP Giles Chichester discuss the EU's nuclear energy policy with the Green German MEP Rebecca Harms in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
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