"We are all affected by the situation in Japan", emphasised the Commissioner, who was concerned about how Japan would control the situation. Although the incidents at the Japanese nuclear plants would have far-reaching implications in Europe, he reassured MEPs that all stakeholders "are prepared to conduct extraordinary stress tests" including risk assessments of possible damage by earthquakes and high water levels.

The Commission will prepare the EU-wide assessment criteria by June, while the tests themselves should be concluded by the end of the year, he said. Thorough stress tests will also take place in nuclear plants of neighbouring countries, including Turkey, Russia and Switzerland.

MEPs' responses to Oettinger's opening statement were many and varied. Alejo Vidal Quadras (EPP, ES), Giles Chichester (ECR, UK) and Edit Herzog (S&D, HU) contended that Europe should not panic and must get all the details about the accident correct before making any changes in long-term decisions about its energy future.

Rebecca Harms (Greens/EFA, DE), Matthias Groote (S&D, DE) and Fiona Hall (ALDE, UK) were concerned that nuclear meltdown was almost impossible to stop once it has started. They insisted that stress tests on the robustness of cooling systems and the storage of spent fuel, which is often kept in the plants, should therefore be very thorough.

Angelika Niebler (EPP, DE) and Jorgo Chatizmarkakis (ALDE, DE) were in favour of the increased "Europeanisation" of future safety standards, which would entail shared responsibility, and also called for research into alternative energy sources to be speeded up.

Vladimír Remek (GUE/NGL, CZ) wondered if the EU would hold consultations with Russia on the accident, while Lena Ek (ALDE, SE) asked about the consequences for the energy mix in the EU's Member States.

The Commissioner replied that he would report to MEPs on the criteria for the stress tests when they were ready: the first draft should be available after Easter. The tests would take account of the age and location of nuclear power plants. He also pointed emphasised that any decision on the early closure of nuclear power plants or on a moratorium on the construction of future plants lay with national governments and public opinion in the Member States. Lastly, he called for patience since not all the facts on incidents in Japan were yet known and it would be wrong to jump to conclusions about the safety of the plants in Europe.

Foto: Nuclear power plant in Cattenom, France - (c) Stefan Kühn