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Japan crisis spreads doubts in nuclear countries

Japan's nuclear crisis reverberated in atomic power-friendly countries Wednesday, with China saying it would hold off on approving new nuclear plants and French lawmakers questioning top energy executives about the safety of their reactors.

Some governments have put their nuclear future on hold, at least for now, as concerns grow even among pro-nuclear governments about the safety of the 442 reactors operating around the world. Japanese emergency workers are desperately struggling to cool overheating reactors after a series of explosions at a nuclear plant crippled after last week's earthquake and tsunami.

China's Cabinet said Wednesday the government will suspend approvals for nuclear power stations to allow for a revision in safety standards. The State Council said it has ordered the relevant departments to conduct safety checks at existing plants and at those under construction.

The move will allow China's communist leaders to allay any concerns among the public about the safety of nuclear power without derailing plans to double nuclear energy's share of national power generation to high single digits by 2020.

A top Chinese official said earlier this week that Japan's problems would not deter China from expanding nuclear power generation.

China has 13 nuclear power plants in use now and plans to add potentially hundreds more. Beijing has been focusing on solar, hydropower, wind and nuclear energy generation to reduce the country's reliance on coal.

In France — the world's most nuclear-dependent country — the heads of both houses of parliament ordered a legislative investigation into "the future of the French nuclear industry." Until this week, questioning atomic power was almost taboo in a country where politicians on the left and right have long backed nuclear development, even after the Chernobyl disaster.

The chiefs of reactor builder Areva and Electricite de France, the world's biggest operator of nuclear plants, faced French lawmakers at an emergency meeting Wednesday.

Areva CEO Anne Lauvergeon tried to keep the focus on the immediate drama unfolding at the Japanese plant, saying high-powered fire-fighting trucks should be rushed to the site to douse the overheated nuclear fuel.

"We are in a catastrophe," she said. "The situation today requires urgent action."

She insisted that new-generation reactors are safer than those at Fukushima. The industry "needs to rebuild a dialogue and trust about nuclear energy," she said. Areva markets its nuclear technology around the world, including to China, Japan and the United States.

European Union energy officials agreed Tuesday to apply stress tests on plants across the 27-nation bloc. Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero told reporters Wednesday that studies have been commissioned to determine how vulnerable his country's six nuclear plants are to earthquakes or flooding.

Germany went further, saying it would temporarily switch off seven aging reactors.

Swedish Environment Minister Andreas Carlgren, whose country like Germany scrapped plans to phase out nuclear power quickly in recent years, said "domestic political issues" were behind the move in Germany, which holds regional elections this weekend.

"For us, the situation is different and we want long-term decisions when it comes to energy policy," Carlgren said.

In South America, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said the Japanese catastrophe prompted him to call off plans he announced last year to develop nuclear energy.

"It's something extremely risky and dangerous for the whole world because despite the great technology and advances that Japan has, look at what is happening with some nuclear reactors," Chavez said.

And in Chile, which suffered its own devastating earthquake and tsunami last year, the government was scrambling to preserve a nuclear energy accord that was supposed to be the highlight of President Barack Obama's visit to the country next week. Obama has defended the use of nuclear energy.

Officials said the still-secret accord focuses on training, not construction of what would be the country's first nuclear energy reactors, but some lawmakers want Chile to discard the option altogether.

It took many countries a generation after the accidents at Chernobyl in then-Soviet Ukraine and Three Mile Island in the United States to get over worries about nuclear safety. In recent years governments around the world — especially in developing countries with rapidly growing energy demand — have again embraced the power of the atom.

Boosters say nuclear energy is an alternative to polluting fossil fuels, amid concerns about global warming and volatile oil prices. Critics have maintained that nuclear plants always pose safety risks and governments have yet to find a good solution to storing nuclear waste.

Ferhat Aziz, a spokesman for Indonesia's Nuclear Energy, said four nuclear reactors planned near a volatile fault will be safe and more modern than the crippled Japanese plant. The plant was rocked by explosions that the International Atomic Energy Agency said were caused by a build-up of hydrogen.

The Indonesian reactors will be built on the island of Bangka, near Sumatra, the heavily populated island where a 2004 earthquake caused the massive tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen nations.

In the Philippines, however, Japan's nuclear crisis has prompted President Benigno Aquino III to prioritize the development of non-nuclear sources of energy, spokesman Edwin Lacierda said.

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Associated Press writers Gillian Wong in Beijing, Daniel Woolls in Madrid, Malin Rising in Stockholm and John Heilprin in Geneva contributed to this report.