March 21, 2011 9:06 pm

Divisions over EU power strategy exposed

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Europe’s energy chief came under criticism for whipping up fear about the Japanese nuclear crisis at an emergency meeting of ministers in Brussels that underscored the continent’s deep divisions over nuclear power.

Günther Oettinger, energy commissioner, sent markets into a tailspin last week when he warned that Japan was facing an “apocalypse” and predicted the situation at the country’s stricken nuclear plants could turn “catastrophic”.

The comments were judged to be alarmist by pro-nuclear EU countries, particularly after the commissioner’s spokesman acknowledged that his remarks were not based on any privileged information.

Eric Bresson, the French energy minister, said the commissioner’s comments had been “shocking” to many in France. “There is absolutely no need to feed the neurosis,” he added. The UK and Spain were also critical, according to diplomats.

Some had bristled at Mr Oettinger's promise to conduct “stress tests” this year on each of the European Union’s 143 nuclear power plants to ensure their safety. On Monday energy ministers publicly supported the idea, although the tests remain voluntary and their terms and timetable are still up for debate. That has fed scepticism that the exercise may amount to little more than a gesture.

Nuclear power, which supplies about a third of Europe’s electricity, is a fraught subject, with some member states, such as Austria, ardently opposed and others, such as France, almost reliant on it.

These divisions were exposed at the meeting to discuss the crisis in Japan, with Austria calling for mandatory stress tests and France urging member states to show more patience before taking decisions.

France and Italy also joined Belgium in expressing frustration at Germany’s decision last week to suspend operations at seven older nuclear plants without consulting neighbours. The move contributed to a rise in electricity prices across Europe, and seemed to run counter to a pledge by European leaders in February to pursue a common energy market.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Mr Oettinger refused to back down, saying he believed his assessment was correct.

“[It] did not create any panic, nor did it play down the risks,” he said – a stance that seemed to deepen his critics’ irritation.

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