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Interview: Kohl confident he'll outlast wave of nuclear concern

By Paul Van Slambrouck and Elizabeth PondStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / May 23, 1986



Bonn

Chancellor Helmut Kohl sees no need to alter planned West German expansion of nuclear power beyond its present 36 percent supply of energy needs. And he thinks he will outlast the current wave of nuclear Angst to triumph in next January's general election. In an interview assessing the situation after the Chernobyl nuclear accident, Dr. Kohl also:

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Welcomed the initial response from other governments to his proposal for a worldwide conference on nuclear safety.

Hoped that the second US-Soviet summit would happen this year and that a nuclear test limit and eventual ban might be one step in agreeing on arms control.

Called relations in the Western alliance excellent: ``stable and solid and strong as hardly ever before.''

Kohl agreed that the Bonn government should again scrutinize its own nuclear power program in the wake of the Soviet disaster and the resulting swing of German public opinion which surged to 68 percent opposed to new nuclear construction. But his emphasis was on maintaining the nerve to carry out present plans despite the popular antinuclear mood, and he dismissed any alternative energy mix as unrealistic in coming decades.

He dissociated himself from the call of the ecologist party, the Greens, to shut down all nuclear generators at once, the Social Democrats' call to reduce nuclear reliance, and even the calls of some conservative colleagues for a pause in which to reconsider current plans.

The chancellor acknowledged the problems that Chernobyl has created for the conservatives in next month's election in the state of Lower Saxony. Before the Soviet disaster, the Christian Democratic incumbent premier was considered a shoo-in there, but now he is widely expected to lose, as safety of the nuclear plants that produce 70 percent of the state's energy has exploded into the major campaign issue. At this point, ``nobody knows'' what the outcome will be, Kohl said.

If turnout is high he would expect his party to stay in office. If turnout is low and the vote adverse, however, Kohl has no intention of resigning and yielding his post to a successor, despite all the ``wishful thinking'' of pundits. In this context, Kohl cited his proven ability to survive setbacks; at one point he compared himself to German tennis whiz Boris Becker in having had to learn to ignore the jeers of the crowd when he is losing.

Kohl's current chances of political survival were enhanced this week when the Koblenz prosecutor who had been investigating the veracity of the Kohl's parliamentary testimony about party funding decided there were insufficient grounds to indict him. Christian Democrats are hoping that the Bonn prosecutor who is looking into similar charges will soon follow suit.

In ``the election that really matters,'' the federal election in January, the chancellor is ``absolutely certain'' of his victory. He expects economic success -- 3 to 3.5 percent growth, negative inflation, and unemployment that should soon dip below 8 percent -- to win votes for his center-right coalition. On this basis, he says he finds himself to be ``the most successful head of government in Europe.'' He also clearly expects an additional boost from public fears about a post-election coalition between Social Democrats and the volatile Greens. He noted workers' suspicion of the Greens' economic policy, a policy he characterized as ``absurd'' and apt to induce energy shortages, unemployment, and a drop in exports.

On his proposal for a 36-nation conference on nuclear safety, Kohl said he has already received a favorable response from various West and East European officials. He explained his concept of a conference that might be coordinated with the UN International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna as a vehicle to promote the quick exchange of full information on nuclear accidents; offer mutual assistance in combating leaks; prescribe agreed safety standards for reactors; organize international inspection of implementation; and establish the principle that the radioactive polluter pays.

So far Moscow has not approved this idea -- and has been actively hostile to Kohl's parallel request for Soviet compensation for damage to West German crops from Chernobyl radioactivity. Kohl declared himself ``satisfied'' with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's recent expression of interest in international cooperation in nuclear safety, however, even if there has been no Soviet response to Kohl's specific initiative.

In superpower relations Kohl spoke warmly of the need for the two leaders to get to know each other better personally. ``If we want to reach real d'etente and real disarmament -- and that is what we want -- then it can be brought about only if the dialogue between the USA and the USSR is successful,'' he commented. The summit dialogue should aim for more concrete results than were reached at the last summit and should be prepared by ``thoroughgoing negotiations prior to the meeting.''

Kohl confirmed that he had recently written President Reagan recommending a step-by-step approach to a nuclear test ban and that this topic was discussed at the Tokyo summit of industrialized nations in early May.

In transatlantic relations, Kohl views the surge of ill-will that followed the US strike on Libya as a temporary phenomenon that should be seen in the context of ``excellent'' overall relations.