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Brussels, 14 March 2011

Statement by Commissioner Janez Potočnik at the Environment Council on Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami

"As environment ministers we are usually concerned with the beauty of nature and how to protect it. But on Friday we had a terrible reminder of the destructive power of nature when one of the biggest earthquakes recorded in history hit the North Eastern part of Japan; followed by a large tsunami, causing deaths and severe damage, and impacting many regions in Japan.

The European Union expresses its condolences to the people and government of Japan, and to the families of the victims at this difficult time. We also express our solidarity, and we stand ready to assist in any way we can.

Immediately after the earthquake struck, the Commission’s Joint Research Centre was able to provide alerts and automatic impact estimations using its monitoring and modeling capacities to indicate the size, timing and pattern of the large tsunami it generated.

Although Japan is one of the best-prepared countries in the world to cope with disasters, the sheer magnitude of this earthquake and the tsunami means that international assistance is needed.

The Commission immediately contacted the Japanese Authorities and mobilized Europe’s civil protection system, under the responsibility of my colleague Kristalina Georgieva, to coordinate help to Japan from its participating states and ensure a coordinated approach at EU level.

So far 20 member countries have offered help. The Japanese authorities have informed us that they do not need assistance with Search and Rescue, but they will assess the need for water purification, medical teams and other experts. The EU Civil Protection Coordination and Assessment Team is on standby. A Monitoring and Information Centre (MIC) officer is already deployed in Japan providing liaison between the EU Delegation and the Japanese authorities, and a humanitarian expert from the Commission is joining the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination team.

In addition to the humanitarian catastrophe, we are also highly concerned at the situation of the Japanese nuclear plants.

The effected plants were shut down immediately, but as you will have heard over the weekend, damage was sustained particularly at the Fukushima-Daiichi plant. Some radioactivity was released from reactor number 1. Although there are 22 confirmed cases of exposure to radiation from the immediate vicinity, the release apparently does not pose a significant further radiological threats and fortunately the wind direction is likely to push radioactivity towards the Pacific Ocean rather than populated areas. The Tokyo Electric Power Company, which operates the plant, has confirmed that the integrity of the primary containment vessel remains intact.

The damaged number 3 reactor core was being cooled with seawater over the weekend, but hydrogen gas pressure was building up and attempts were made to release some of this pressure yesterday. This reactor is loaded with mixed oxide plutonium uranium fuel. During the night – at 11h00 Japanese local time - a further explosion occurred, but the operators inform us that the reactor's containment vessel resisted the explosion, that the control room remains operational and radiation levels remain within limits. Six people were injured by the blast.

The Commission is in close contact with the International Atomic Energy Agency and is monitoring the situation in Japan very closely. We have not been asked by the Japanese for help in dealing with the emergency, but we are ready to respond if asked.

Europe has several nuclear plants of a similar basic design to those in Japan. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safety standards provide strong precautions in the construction and operation of these plants. Whilst Member States remain responsible for the safe operation of nuclear plants, the EU Directive on Nuclear Safety has established a legal framework for national measures. The EU is responsible for radiation protection and safeguards measures. Thankfully we do not have the same levels of seismic activity as Japan, but nevertheless European plants are designed to continue operating safely in a level 1 earthquake, and to shut down safely in the event of an exceptional (level 2) earthquake.

My colleague Günther Öttinger has called a meeting of all 27 national nuclear safety authorities and nuclear plant operators tomorrow to overview contingency plans and safety measures in place in Europe."

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