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Swiss suspend plans for new nuclear plants

Swiss suspend plans for new nuclear plants

March 14th, 2011 by JOHN HEILPRIN, Associated Press in News

BERN, Switzerland (AP) - Switzerland abruptly suspended plans to build and replace nuclear plants Monday as two hydrogen explosions at a tsunami-stricken Japanese facility spread jitters about atomic energy safety in Europe.

Energy Minister Doris Leuthard said the suspension would affect 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."

In Germany, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called for a new risk analysis on his country's nuclear power plants, particularly regarding their cooling systems. A previous government decided a decade ago to shut all 17 German nuclear plants by 2021 but Chancellor Angela Merkel's administration last year moved to extend their lives by an average 12 years.

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.

Tusk told reporters in Gdansk on Sunday that Poland is not a country of seismic activity and that "there are technical and construction methods that will allow us to safely build nuclear power plants in Poland."

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.

The Swiss already had launched a safety test at the Muhleberg nuclear plant in the canton (state) Bern and said they were now consulting with EU officials and the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency.

Swiss voters in 1990 approved a 10-year moratorium on building new nuclear power plants. But in 2003, three years after the ban had lapsed, voters rejected a proposal for a new moratorium.

Since then the plans for new nuclear power stations at three sites were approved by the government. Another referendum on nuclear power is expected within the next few years.


Angela Charlton in Paris, Raf Casert in Brussels and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.