The Chernobyl nuclear accident has dealt a grievous blow in Europe to the reputation of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. An ``onslaught of charm'' is how a Paris journalist at a French presidential news conference defined the communication skills of the Soviet leader on the arms control issue.
But the Chernobyl nuclear disaster has turned the tables on Mr. Gorbachev who, until now, has thrived on public diplomacy.
The secrecy surrounding the Soviet nuclear facilities, and Moscow's virtual news blackout for at least three days on the details of the disaster, are recognized now as a serious propaganda setback for the Soviet leader.
``There is deep concern at the Soviet Union's failure to give early warning of this,'' said British Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe yesterday. ``It is a serious lapse in European good neighborliness.'' Mr. Howe made the remarks to reporters in Italy, where defense and foreign ministers were gathered for the meeting of the seven-nation Western European Union. Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Andreotti, summing up the group's discussions about the accident, said countries have a duty to give information on accidents of this kind.
This theme is echoed by a source close to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He says the Soviet failure to alert European nations to the radioactive cloud moving toward them raises questions about Moscow's ``new open policy.''
West Europeans, seldom united on major political issues, have uniformly expressed their anger and dismay at the Soviet reticence to share information about the nuclear disaster. West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher has called on the Soviets to shut down all reactors of the same type as Chernobyl until the cause of the accident is known.
It was at least three days after the incident before Soviet officials finally admitted that the incident had even taken place. By then, the radioactive cloud had reached Scandinavia.
Denmark has demanded an explanation from the Soviets as to why it was not warned. Sweden is insisting on a full inquiry and says the accident highlights the need for international inspection of the entire Soviet civilian nuclear program.
The European Community commissioner in charge of nuclear safety has accused the Soviet Union of a possible breach of international law by not disclosing the accident earlier.
Concern about possible contamination has led some European countries to take precautionary measures. Children in Austria were told to stay indoors. Citizens in Poland were told to wash vegetables carefully. Iodine tablets to reduce radiation levels in humans were reported to be sold out in Denmark and Sweden.
The Soviets are reported to have asked Sweden's advice on how to contain the accident and were referred to the British. Britain experienced a graphite fire in 1957 at the Windscale nuclear power station in northern England. Britain has expressed readiness to help, but says it has not been asked to do so.
The Chernobyl disaster follows a number of recent radiation leaks that occurred at Britain's Sellafield facility (formerly named Windscale). The nuclear industry in Britain now faces ever-increasing delays because of lengthy inquiries into the wisdom and suitability of nuclear power stations.
British officials contend that no parallels should be drawn between the Chernobyl accident and the leaks that have occurred at Sellafield, arguing that their design is far superior to that of the Soviet's. But there is little doubt that the accident will be used by the antinuclear lobby in Europe. Antinuclear forces are likely to charge that Chernobyl proves that what some scientists said could never happen, can happen.
A West German diplomat in London, referring to his own country, said, ``The nuclear debate has been kindled by the incident. Very definitely.'' The fate of a planned nuclear reprocessing plant in Bavaria thus will become a more important issue in that southern German state, which will hold elections next October.
France, which depends heavily on nuclear power for electricity, has not been a focus in the debate. By contrast, French cities actively compete for the economic rewards that come from being selected as sites for new nuclear power plants.