- Associated Press - Monday, March 14, 2011

BERLIN (AP) — Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday said Germany will take seven of its 17 reactors offline for three months while the country reconsiders plans to extend the life of its nuclear power plants.

Mrs. Merkel said Germany will temporarily shut down reactors that went into operation before the end of 1980, affecting seven reactors. The decision comes amid fears sparked by the crises under way at Japan’s tsunami-stricken nuclear power plants.

Mrs. Merkel spoke after meeting with the governors of states that have nuclear power plants.

The German government on Monday temporarily halted plans to extend the life of its nuclear power plants after two hydrogen explosions at a tsunami-stricken Japanese facility spread jitters about atomic energy safety in Europe.

Mrs. 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,” Mrs. Merkel said Monday.

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 Mrs. Merkel’s administration last year moved to extend their lives by an average of 12 years.

Mrs. Merkel said 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,” Mrs. Merkel said.

Elsewhere in Europe, 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.”

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 Ms. 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.”

Ms. 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 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.

Austrian Environment Minister Nikolaus Berlakovich called for an EU-wide stress test to check whether nuclear power stations are “earthquake-proof,” much as European banks have been tested for their ability to cope with financial shocks.

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