Paris — Three Mile Island may have come to France. At first glance, the sinking last weekend of the French freighter Mont Louis off the Belgian coast with nuclear material on board bears little direct similarity with the 1979 accident at the Pennsylvania nuclear plant.
No trace of radioactive contamination has been found, and the huge canisters carrying uranium hexafluoride are said to be still intact.
But just as Three Mile Island raised serious doubts about nuclear energy in the United States, the Mont Louis accident has raised questions rarely asked before in France, a world leader in nuclear technology.
What is our government hiding, the French ask. Is nuclear energy really safe?
''Because of this accident,'' says the French daily Le Monde, ''the public is discovering that radioactive materials are not only arms capable of annihilating the globe (and) providing us with our daily electricity, but (are) also the object of international trade necessitating numerous transports.''
The issue of nuclear transport has been magnified by the French government's seeming attempt to cover up the affair.
No announcement was made about the accident until the environmental group Greenpeace revealed the nature of the cargo the Mont Louis was carrying - and this nearly 24 hours after it sank.
''There was no danger, so there was no point in issuing a statement,'' a French Transport Ministry official explained.
Even after a public furor arose, officials seemed unconcerned and evasive. Only yesterday did they acknowledge that three barrels of lightly enriched uranium were aboard. The secretary of state of maritime affairs, Guy Lengagne, did not even bother to return from vacation. He refuses to discuss future radioactive cargoes, especially the details of an imminent shipment of 260 kilograms of plutonium to Japan.
French governments have never faced much questioning about nuclear policy. When a crash nuclear program to lessen dependence on foreign energy supplies was undertaken following the first oil shock of 1973, it enjoyed wide public support.
But in the late 1970s, ecological groups opposing nuclear power grew more active. Some large demonstrations were held, and the antinuclear ecologist candidate Brice Lalonde polled some 1.1 million votes in the 1981 presidential election.
Still, no one in power felt much pressure to cut back on the program. In fact , the week after the Three Mile Island accident President Valery Giscard d'Estaing announced a speedup in nuclear plant construction.
The election of Socialist Francois Mitterrand in 1981 caused no significant change.
During the campaign, Mr. Mitterrand promised to hold a national referendum on the issue. But once in power, he ordered the construction of six more nuclear plants in 1982 and 1983. Thanks to this construction, officials from Electricite de France now proudly boast that some 55 percent of the country's electricity is nuclear-produced, the highest percentage in the world.
Not surprisingly, antinuclear activisits are horrified. But their inability to stall the program has been matched by their declining influence.
A few weeks ago, they were only able to muster a few dozen people to protest the construction of the controversial Malville Breeder reactor plant near Lyon.
The Mont Louis accident may change the French view of nuclear power. Banner headlines have brought the nuclear issue back into the public consciousness.
By acting responsibly, only releasing information when it had verified the facts, the ecologists have gained respectability.
International pressure may even cause the French government to budge.
The Belgian government has formally expressed its displeasure with the initial French silence on the matter. And British and French unions have called for an end to nuclear maritime transport.
Pressure is sure to grow if further complications result from the accident. Divers will begin retrieving the containers of radioactive material later this week. The operation could take as long as three weeks. Meanwhile, regular samplings of water in the area are to be taken as a precaution that no contamination spreads - for if it does, the French antinuclear movement is bound to spread as well.