Chernobyl boosts West Europe's antinuclear lobby. Only France's nuclear plans unlikely to be affected

Beginning this past weekend, West Europeans could eat no more Hungarian sausage. No Polish ham or Bulgarian strawberries, either. In order to keep out foods contaminated by radioactivity from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the European Community has banned imports from the East bloc.

The measure represents more than a simple safety measure. It offers a glimpse of the degree of concern with which Western Europe is viewing Chernobyl.

Long-term political consequences promise to follow the fallout. Antinuclear movements have been strengthened, and nuclear power programs weakened. Only France, with its large nuclear program, remains quiet.

The actual danger is fading. Radiation levels across the continent have fallen back to near normal. Nuclear experts generally say there is little health risk.

But the public remains concerned, especially in countries such as West Germany and Austria, where nuclear power is a sensitive issue.

Sales of milk and fresh vegetables have plummeted. Special television and radio phone-in programs have been swamped with calls from anxious parents.

``We've had it,'' said one Viennese man, saying that many of his friends were avoiding their springtime ritual: sunbathing on the park grass.

In trying to assuage fears, many governments have only added to them. Keep your children inside, advised the Austrian government. Don't buy lettuce or spinach, insisted West German authorities. A government-sponsored television broadcast on the state of radiation in West Germany reportedly drew a larger audience than the usual favorite, ``Dynasty.''

The fears these fueled have already put pressure on nuclear-power programs.

The Danish government has renounced the use of nuclear power. The Dutch government stopped construction of two nuclear reactors after an emergency parliamentary debate. And the Swedish government prepared to speed up plans to phase out its country's 12 reactors if a report on the Chernobyl accident indicates significant safety deficiencies.

The accident has dominated political debate even in Austria, where the central issue in last week's presidential election was former UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim's wartime record.

A new Ecologist Party there won 5.5 percent of the vote, forcing Dr. Waldheim into a runoff election. After the vote, one of the first question reporters asked Waldheim was whether he favored putting into service the country's new nuclear reactor. Construction is finished, but so far the plant has not received approval to operate. Waldheim said no.

In contrast, no French authorities have been forced to answer questions about France's nuclear program. Other than the European Community-wide ban on East Bloc foodstuffs, no warnings about agricultural products have been announced. No radio hotlines have been set up. At the Madeleine market in central Paris, Gerard Delaret scoffs at any notion that his salads are contaminated.

``That has nothing to do with us,'' Mr. Delaret says. ``My customers are buying as much fruit and vegetables as before.''

Why the difference? In part, the weather is responsible. The radioactive cloud from Chernobyl headed first to the northern Europe and only touched parts of the south and southwest of France.

But the weather does not explain all. Neither England nor Italy received much radioactive fallout, and yet both countries responded strongly.

In England, antinuclear activists relaunched their campaign against the Sellafield nuclear plant.

In Italy, a chemical scandal and the recent scandal over the trafficking of methanol-blended wine, resulted in strong pressure on the government.

French nationalist pride is involved.

The French see nuclear arms and nuclear power as the key to their country's independence, both politically and economically.

France boasts the world's third-largest arsenal of nuclear weapons. And some 65 percent of the country's electricity is produced in nuclear power plants.

None of the major parties argued for altering this in the March election. Antinuclear ecologists only won about 1 percent of the vote.

``The results show we have learned to live with the danger,'' explains Roger Cans, a political analyst with the daily Le Monde.

Will other Europeans feel the same way? The ban on imports of East bloc foodstuffs is scheduled to end May 31. If the Chernobyl situation calms, the public may return to eating Polish ham or Hungarian sausages. But it remains much more doubtful whether Europeans (excepting the French) will continue to build nuclear power plants.

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