France launched an impassioned defense of nuclear power on Monday as European Union nations searched for answers to security questions raised by the earthquake and tsunami that crippled Japan's main plant.
Energy Minister Eric Besson said it was his "profound conviction that nuclear energy will stay in Europe and the world and be one of the core energies in the 21st century." France is one of the world's most nuclear-dependent countries with 58 reactors that provide 80 percent of its electricity.
One week after traditional ally Germany ordered on old plant closed for good and six other reactors shut down temporarily as a precaution, Besson said plants should be decommisioned only if they are considered a risk, not just because they are old.
"You have to look at risks _ flooding, quakes. Age in itself is not a criterion _ what does it mean?" asked Besson. speaking after an emergency meeting of EU energy ministers.
Japanese officials on Monday raced to restore electricity to the leaking nuclear plant in Fukushima, but still faced daunting challenges to put the partly melted reactor cores under control. Traces of radiation are tainting the region's vegetables and some water supplies.
Austria leads a group of five EU nations that have questioned the use of continued nuclear energy and wants the EU summit to act on it. France has over a third of the EU's 143 nuclear reactors and is a major player in setting conditions how plants should be tested for security issues.
The Greenpeace environmental group said Monday that any reactor older than 30 years has increased security concerns because of metal fatigue from neutron bombardment in the reactor vessel itself and cooling circuits.
"Many such plants are operating beyond their scheduled lifetime," Greenpeace said, adding that 48 in Europe are at least 30 years old, of which 16 are in France.
Besson disagreed. "Everybody knows that at the start of our nuclear plants, they were built to last well beyond 30 years. They generally quote the number of 40, 45 years," he said, adding that the 30 year figure was initially put in as a write-off for accounting reasons.
At the meeting, the EU energy ministers failed to agree on strict and binding criteria for testing the bloc's nuclear power plants.
Germany's Economy and Energy Minister Rainer Bruederle said none of the ministers directly opposed EU-wide security checks but it was impossible to decide on short notice since there was such disparity between the different power plants and government policies.
Bruederle told a news conference there will be a renewed push for strict tests at a two-day summit of European Union leaders starting Thursday.
He said common criteria are necessary since he is "not sure that everyone will proceed with the high demands that we are planning to use in Germany."
Last week, Germany decided that that seven reactors that went into operation before 1980 would be kept offline for three months while Europe's biggest economy reconsiders its plans to extend the life of its atomic power plants.
Bruederle acknowledged an immediate exit from nuclear power generation was impossible. "We need electricity supply to create economic progress," he said.
France, however, remains one of the most robust supporters of nuclear energy despite the accident in Japan.
"We will need it for the security of our energy supplies. We need it for our competitiveness in energy prices. If our electricity in France is 40 percent cheaper than the EU average, we owe it to the nuclear option," Besson said.
"So for those who want to get out of it, think first and tell the French what the cost will be."