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16th Apr 2021

France rebukes EU energy chief over nuclear remarks

  • French energy minister Eric Besson (Photo: EricssonFrance)

Several European governments have openly rebuked EU energy chief Guenther Oettinger, after the commissioner's reference to a Japanese "apocalypse" last week sent financial markets into a spin.

French energy minister Eric Besson said he pulled Oettinger aside on Monday (21 March) before an extraordinary meeting of EU energy ministers in Brussels, in order to warn the German politician of what was to come.

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"I regret some statements which caused shock in France. There's absolutely no need to feed the neurosis," Besson told journalists after the meeting.

Asked whether it was the reference to an "apocalypse", statements that Japan's crisis was in the "hands of God", or the commissioner's suggestion that some European nuclear plants will fail as-yet-undefined 'stress tests', Besson simply responded "all of it".

Sources confirm Besson's criticism at the meeting, adding that Belgian energy minister Paul Magnette also indicated that he "regrets the reaction of the commission".

France and Belgium are among EU member states most committed to nuclear energy, with the technology producing 76 percent and 53 percent of the their respective electricity outputs. France also has considerable nuclear export ambitions, with French companies currently behind one nuclear project in Finland and several in China.

Member states last week signaled their willingness to see 'stress tests' conducted on Europe's 143 nuclear power plants, but failed on Monday to agree criteria for the upcoming examinations.

The commission and the European Nuclear Safety Regulator Group (ENSREG) were asked to carry out further work on the topic, with EU leaders also set to address nuclear safety when they meet later this week.

Speaking at a separate press conference after the ministerial meeting, Oettinger defended his earlier remarks. "Some people are more cautious in their assessment than I might have been," he said. "My assessment was not one that created any panic."

As technicians continued in their struggle to cool overheating reactor's at Japan's Fukushima plant on Monday, environmental group Greenpeace questioned how rigourous the European tests were likely to be, drawing up a list of plants it deems as unsafe.

The group cites Russian designed VVER440 reactors, currently used in Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic as lacking "secondary containment" and therefore "more vulnerable to terrorist attack".

Canadian designed Candu reactors, active in Romania, are listed as having a "design flaw that played an important role in the Chernobyl disaster", while ageing reactors in several member states are given as a cause for concern. Rectors in Slovenia and Romania are situated in seismic zones, says the environmental group.

As many EU governments rush to restore public confidence in nuclear energy, diplomats in Brussels have described the use of the term 'stress test' as unfortunate, after similar tests on European banks last year failed to show up fundamental problems in Ireland's financial system.

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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