France's neighbors on edge over its plans for A-plants

Making friends is not their business. Running the world's most ambitious nuclear- power program is. But soon officials of l'Electricite de France (EDF), France's national power company, may be out there kissing babies and shaking hands.

Along France's northern frontier, and especially here and in Cattenom, 85 miles to the southeast, people from four countries have been joined by government and international officials in their campaign to pressure the company into reconsidering plans to build eight nuclear reactors. Together, these would generate 10,400 megawatts of power, or one- quarter of France's nuclear capacity , by 1985. Separately, each would be one of Europe's largest nuclear-power installations.

This spring the Belgian environment minister has taken up -- or at least recognized -- the citizens' cause, and a senior Common Market official in Brussels has issued a thinly veiled warning to the French government.

At issue, say opponents of the Chooz and Cattenom projects, are the health and safety of the environment and people of four countries -- France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and West Germany -- three of which have been given no choice in the matter.

At a press conference last November, the EDF confirmed the French government's decision to build four reactors -- each to generate 1,300 megawatts -- in Chooz, angering citizens in Belgium two miles away, who have long opposed the project.

Last December trade unionists and environmentalists in Luxembourg organized a "national front" to protest the building of four French reactors across the border in Cattenom. They argued that if an accident occurred, two-thirds of Luxembourg's population, or 200,000 people, would have to be evacuated, paralyzing four-fifths of the country's steel industry, Luxembourg's principal source of revenue. The French foreign minister, at a meeting called to discuss the situation, tried to reassure Luxembourg's primeminister in April -- but to little avail. West German and French officials have also had sharp exchanges over the Cattenom project. The Moselle River enters Germany 10 miles from Cattenom.

Adding fuel to the cross-border fire was Belgian Environment Minister Luc Dhoore, who in a statement in early May -- after months of protests by Belgian citizens -- expressed considerable concern over the French government's decision to proceed with the Chooz project.

He questioned the move principally on environmental grounds, saying that the amount of radioactive material dumped into the Meuse River, which runs from France through much of Belgium, by the proposed Chooz reactors, plus two Belgian plants already operating on the Meuse, would exceed internationally agree limits. He also pointed out that to avoid raising the temperature of the Meuse by more than 3 degrees C. in the reactors' cooling process, the river would have to flow continually at a rate not attained even at times of heavy rains.

The Belgian minister now is thought ready to demand of the French government a reduction in the size of the Chooz project and a guarantee that any reactors built there be subject to stricter safety standards than normally applied in France, where 70 percent of energy consumption will be supplied by nuclear power by 1988.

In Brussels, the Common Market social- affairs commissioner, Henk Vredeling, responding to a question from a member of the European Parliament, has said his agency would see to it that the French government adhered to the Euratom Treaty, which limits the authority of signatory governments, including France, over nuclear matters. He said the French government had not yet informed the Commission of the European Communities -- "in pursuance of Article 37" -- of its decision on the Chooz project. He hinted that the commission would soon exercise its right to initiate consultations with the French on the matter. The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg has recently ordered the commission to enforce the Euratom Treaty more vigorously.

French authorities, meanwhile, appear unmoved by agitation in neighboring countries over the Chooz and Cattenom questions, although they have said that "no definitive" decisions has yet been made on Cattenom reactors 3 and 4.

Here in Chooz, the authorities opened what they call a "public inquest" into the case, permitting the local population and even Belgians from across the border to file their at the town hall. Few people here believed that those opinions would influence EDF's thinking.

On the first day of the "inquest," some 60 environmentalists invaded the town hall and tied up the mayor for five hours. Said one protester: "That 'inquest' makes a mockery of democracy."

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