By David Stamp and Brian Rohan
BERLIN (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel promised on Tuesday an early decision on the fate of Germany's nuclear power stations and refused to say whether seven reactors shut after Japan's crisis would ever reopen.
Merkel, whose party faces tough elections this weekend in states where anti-nuclear sentiment is strong, also signaled that safety checks on atomic plants might affect their life spans, which her cabinet agreed to extend only last autumn.
Merkel was speaking after summoning premiers of the five German states that host nuclear power stations for a second time since she suspended her nuclear policy last week.
That policy moratorium is due to last until June, but the fate of the seven closed plants, which all began operating before 1980, is uncertain after they undergo the safety checks.
Merkel refused to be drawn on the plants, Germany's oldest.
"I cannot predict the result of the entire inspection and I do not want to engage in speculation," she said. "I have said the time after the moratorium will be different from the time before the moratorium and cannot give further details today."
However, she made clear that the uncertainty over Germany's entire nuclear industry could not drag on after the checks.
"One cannot order a five-year review. It is expected to be done as soon as possible so that the supervisory authorities will act and draw conclusions," she told a news conference.
SUSPENDED, NOT Canceled
Merkel provoked a storm last year when her coalition agreed to prolong the lives of all 17 nuclear plants, which produced almost a quarter of German electricity last year.
That decision was suspended, but not canceled, under the three-month moratorium imposed in the wake of the crisis in Japan, where engineers have been fighting to avert a meltdown at the Fukushima complex.
However, Merkel indicated that the policy might not be fully restored after June. "I do not rule out that the tests could also have an effect on the life spans." she said.
Merkel faces a major electoral test on Sunday in the southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, where one of the seven closed reactors, Neckarwestheim I, is located.
The day after Japan's earthquake and tsunami, about 50,000 campaigners formed a 45-km (27-mile) human chain in a pre-planned protest between the state capital of Stuttgart and Neckarwestheim to demand its demise.
Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) risk losing control of Baden-Wuerttemberg, one of Germany's richest and biggest states.
A poll published by Focus magazine on Sunday showed the anti-nuclear Greens have surged since the Fukushima crisis.
Together with the Social Democrats, their natural coalition allies, they were ahead of the CDU and liberal Free Democrats (FDP), its coalition partner in both the state and federal governments.
Merkel, who describes nuclear as a transitional source until green power is developed, called a meeting with premiers of all 16 states for April 15 to discuss moving faster to renewables.
Germany currently gets about 16 percent of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to raise that to at least 35 percent by 2020.
An expert panel on nuclear safety is likely to recommend stricter safety measures next week, its head said.
"The reactor safety commission will present a list of requirements at the end of the month," panel chairman Rudolf Wieland told the Financial Times Deutschland. "I think there will be material changes in Germany to the safety requirements because of Fukushima."
Germany's nuclear plants are run by E.ON, RWE, EnBW and Vattenfall.
(Additional reporting by Erik Kirschbaum, Markus Wacket and Angela Stricker, Writing by David Stamp; editing by Jane Baird)