European Union nations on March 15 agreed to subject their scores of nuclear power plants to safety "stress tests" to ward off risk of the "apocalypse" unraveling in Japan.
"There is talk of an apocalypse and I think the word is particularly well chosen," Europe's energy chief Guenther Oettinger said in remarks to the European Parliament on Japan's nuclear nightmare.
"Practically everything is out of control," he added. "I cannot exclude the worst in the hours and days to come."
The energy commissioner, in charge of energy policy for the 27-nation bloc, said EU states reached a ground-breaking accord at talks to conduct "stress tests" on the 143 reactors scattered across the continent in half as many plants. The tests, to be conducted on a "voluntary" basis, would look at whether plants could resist earthquakes, tsunamis and terrorist attacks and would take into account age as well as geographical factors.
"We want to look at the risk and safety issues in the light of events in Japan," he said. "We must evaluate floods, tsunamis, terrorist attacks, earthquakes, electricity cuts."
Amid soaring public concern, EU ministers, national safety chiefs and leaders of the powerful nuclear industry were summoned to Brussels for hastily convened talks to address anxiety over nuclear safety. Japan's nuclear emergency has already prompted Germany and Switzerland to halt nuclear programs, with Italy taking a hard look at a plan to switch to nuclear energy but Poland vowing to press ahead with building it first plants.
Nuclear-free Austria, a constant critic of its nuclear neighbors, had demanded stress tests across Europe, where 14 of 27 EU states have nuclear plants.
Oettinger said there were no existing EU rules to make the tests binding. "But there is a will to enforce strict safety rules in Europe," he said. "The stress tests will be conducted at European level and that is the added value from today's meeting -- we want a common criteria across the European Union, and perhaps in partner countries."
Under the agreement, independent experts will carry out the tests in the second half of the year once experts have determined common criteria, reach, and the extent of the tests in talks to be held in the next three months.
"The tests will carry such authority that the necessary consequences will be drawn from them," he said. "We want to operate if possible with everybody on board."
Pledging to publish the results "in full", Oettinger said the EU hoped to associate nuclear neighbours Turkey, Russia and Switzerland, in the safety review.
While there would be common standards, the focus would differ for older plants and boiling water plants such as those in Japan, with testing differing for nuclear facilities located by the sea or in seismic areas.
Nuclear waste treatment centers would also come under scrutiny, he said.
In Germany, where anti-nuclear activists say 100,000 people protested on March 14, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced the temporary shutdown of its seven oldest nuclear reactors pending a safety probe. Germany, which has 17 reactors, decided a decade ago to be nuclear-free by 2020, a target postponed until the mid-2030s by Merkel's government late last year -- despite strong public opposition.
France, which is 75% dependent on nuclear power so proportionally the world's biggest user of nuclear energy, ordered safety checks on all its 58 reactors -- as did Russia -- while Britain ordered its chief nuclear inspector to report on the implications of Japan's crisis for its own nuclear energy sector.
But the head of German electricity giant RWE, Jurgen Grossmann, said on going into the Brussels talks that a nuclear-free Europe remained decades away "maybe in 80 years ... I don't think right now."