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Pressure rising on Europe's nuclear plant owners

By Christiaan Hetzner

BERLIN (Reuters) - Some of Europe's 143 nuclear reactors are likely to fail a test simulating terrorist attacks, an EU Commissioner said, and others will likely see insurance bills soar as politicians try to tighten regulations.

Following the nuclear crisis in Japan, caused by an earthquake and tsunami last month, the European Union is planning to carry out tests by the year end to assess whether its reactors could survive severe conditions.

The tests would simulate terrorist attacks either via cyberspace or an airplane crash and would focus on the reliability of reactor cooling systems, European Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger told German magazine Der Spiegel.

"If it was inconceivable that certain nuclear power plants would be taken off line, then we wouldn't need to even bother with the stress test," he was quoted as saying, disputing speculation the move was merely designed to play well to voters.

Nuclear power is extremely lucrative for utilities, which can earn as much as 1 million euros a day per reactor.

Any shutdowns would likely affect France, where state-owned utility EDF operates 58 reactors. These include two at Fessenheim, its oldest nuclear power plant right on the border to Germany and very close to Switzerland.

Following the catastrophe in Japan, the German government hastily postponed its decision to extend the life spans of the country's 17 reactors and took the seven oldest off-line pending a three-month safety check, prompting a lawsuit by utility RWE on Friday.

Berlin previously agreed in September to keep the nuclear plants -- operated by RWE, E.ON, EnBW and Vattenfall -- running 12 years longer on average than their original shutdown date.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, a physicist by training, told Bild am Sonntag the abrupt policy flip-flop in nuclear energy stemmed from a re-evaluation of the dangers and had nothing to do with important state elections held last Sunday.

"The catastrophe from Fukushima -- the extent of which we still do not know -- has also changed my personal views on atomic energy and its risks. I too have learned from it," she said in comments published on Saturday.

Merkel will now wait for the reports from Germany's Reactor Safety Commission in mid-May and its Ethics Commission at the end of May before taking a decision whether to keep the seven oldest reactors permanently offline.

FATAL EXPANSION

Separately, WirtschaftsWoche reported Oettinger plans to talk to nuclear power plant operators and insurers in Brussels on Tuesday about harmonizing liabilities across the EU, seen as an implicit subsidy for operators in certain countries.

Whereas nuclear power plants are liable under German regulations for damages of up to 2.5 billion euros, for example, those in France can be found only liable for just 91.5 million.

"It is unfair that a nuclear power plant only needs to insure itself against a fraction of its risks." Green European MP Claude Turmes told the business magazine. The party's parliamentary leader in the Bundestag, Juergen Trittin, argued it was possible to shut down all reactors in Germany thanks to an EU commitment to raise the amount of renewables in its power mix to 38.6 percent by 2020.

"Not only can we then replace nuclear power with renewables, but we can also take a big chunk out of our fossil fuel needs as well," Trittin told Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung.

Opponents of a quick exit, though, believe Germany would end up resorting to either burning coal to plug the gap, or import nuclear power from neighboring countries like France.

Germany's VDMA, which lobbies on behalf of some 3,000 industrial engineers including Siemens, said that simply boosting the amount of green energy in the country would not suffice for manufacturers.

"A one-sided expansion of renewables would be fatal," VDMA President Thomas Lindner told WirtschaftsWoche.

"We need a secure power supply for our high-precision operations. A power outage for just one millisecond costs my company 20,000 euros."

(Reporting by Christiaan Hetzner; Editing by Erica Billingham)

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