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22nd Jan 2022

EU commissioner: Japanese disaster in 'hands of God'

  • Damage at Japan's Fukushima plant (Photo: DigitalGlobe)

The nuclear crisis in Japan is now in the "hands of God", the EU's energy commissioner, Guenther Oettinger, has said, rattling financial markets.

Speaking to the European Parliament's environment committee on Wednesday (16 March), Oettinger expressed surprise at the "incredible makeshift" methods being used by Japanese technicians to prevent further disaster at the Fukushima power plant. "The site is effectively out of control," the German commissioner told MEPs, a day after he described Japan as facing an "apocalypse".

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Global stock markets reacted with alarm to the energy chief's comments, with a spokeswoman quickly clarifying that they were not based on any new information.

The European Commission also confirmed Wednesday that it had asked EU member states to check the levels of radioactivity in food and feed imports from Japan, although annual imports from the Asian country amount to a relatively low €65 million, mainly fruit, vegetables and fish.

Maximum levels of radioactive contamination allowed in food imports into the EU were fixed following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986.

Japan's ongoing crisis has rapidly turned Europe's attention to the safety of its own nuclear power sector, with member states and industry representatives agreeing on Tuesday to subject the bloc's 143 plants to 'stress tests' later this year.

On Monday, Berlin announced it would temporarily shut down seven of Germany's nuclear plants built prior to 1980, pending the outcome of an independent safety review.

The move followed large anti-nuclear protests in the country over the weekend, with Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrat party facing a strong challenge from the anti-nuclear Greens in upcoming regional elections.

Other member states have warned against knee-jerk reactions. "We don't see any reason to yield to hysteria," the prime minister of the pro-nuclear Czech Republic, Petr Necas, said on Tuesday, referring to the German decision. "We consider it a cheap trick."

British energy secretary Chris Huhne said some "continental politicians" had acted hastily. French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said it would be absurd to condemn nuclear energy out of hand.

Europe has witnessed a number of little-known potential disasters since Chernobyl however, including at the Kozloduy plant in Bulgaria in March 2005.

"Operators realised that the shutdown facility of the plant was not operating correctly," Georgui Kastchiev, a senior scientist at the Vienna-based Institute of Risk Research, told EUobserver on Wednesday.

"During dangerous events such as an electricity blackout, the first thing is to shutdown the fission reaction taking place in the core. But the plant's neutron absorbers which stop the reaction were jammed. A nightmare situation would have developed if the power had suddenly cut."

A 2007 report co-authored by Kastchiev highlights a list of similar shortcomings or minor accidents which could have become more serious.

These include the Tihange plant in Belgium in 1988, the Civaux plant in France in 1998, the Philippsburg plant in Germany in 2001 and the Forsmark plant in Sweden in 2006.

Commission approval for Bulgarian authorities to build a nuclear plant in Belene has also come in for criticism.

"The commission approved Bulgaria's application in 2007 ... citing no seismic risks. But in 1977 roughly 120 people were killed in an earthquake only 14 km away," Greenpeace nuclear campaigner Jan Haverkamp told this website earlier this week.

On Tuesday, Oettinger said the commission planned to re-examine the project.

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