Every day tour buses lumber into the front gates of the Cattenom nuclear power station in the French Lorraine countryside near the German border. To French officials, visiting Cattenom is like ``visiting a ch^ateau.'' German officials don't see it that way. Controversy over the Cattenom plant, scheduled to go into operation in early November, is poisoning French-German relations.
There is a general political consensus on the virtues of nuclear energy in France. As part of an information campaign run by the French Gas and Electric Company to convince the public that nuclear energy is safe and reliable, more than 120,000 tourists have been allowed to visit the site since work began there in 1981. Most of the French tourists to Cattenom go away satisfied about the safety of the four-reactor complex.
To the Communist Mayor of Thionville, a depressed steel town of 40,000 situated 4 miles from the reactor site, Cattenom is a blessing.
``It has created a lot of jobs, at the construction site and also in the surrounding area,'' he says. ``It is important for the economy of the region.''
However, on the other side of the Moselle river, in the West German state of the Saar, the local government is not so pleased. Earlier this month the West German magazine Der Spiegel put Cattenom on its cover, calling France a ``dangerous atomic neighbor,'' and showing the Eiffel Tower encased in a bleak gray reactor dome surrounded by a battery of missiles. Across the nation, memories of the radioactive fallout of the Soviet nuclear accident at Chernobyl are still fresh.
During Chancellor Helmut Kohl's visit to Paris early this month, his minister of environment sat down with the French minister of industry to hammer out a common position on Cattenom. Hoping to dampen the growing chorus of protests, the two ministers issued a joint statement to the effect that safety systems at French and West German reactors were equivalent.
However, if Bonn was more sympathetic to the French position, the local government of the Saar is not. Cattenom promises to be a major issue in the coming general elections in January.
Two weeks ago, on the weekend following the French-German meeting in Paris, 5,000 protestors, most of them German, linked hands across the borders of France, West Germany, and Luxembourg, to protest the presence of the reactor.
``We're hoping to provoke a discussion in France so that French public opinion can be informed,'' says Jup Weber, a Luxembourg parliamentarian who has been one of the most vocal critics of Cattenom.
``I think in France they have the same information as in Russia. Zero,'' Mr. Weber says.
Opponents to the plant in West Germany and Luxembourg have criticized the security system of the French-built reactor, and have pointed to a series of recent mishaps at the plant. The latest included the flooding of a basement gallery by water from an auxiliary cooling system, just as the International Atomic Energy Agency was considering a report on human errors that led to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. There was also a short circuit of an electric cable used to keep water in the cooling system from boiling.
Earlier, during the construction of Cattenom, a tunnel collapsed, a dam to store water for the cooling system began to sag, and one of the cooling towers began to lean.
Alain Malfon, chief of planning at Cattenom, downplays these incidents as well as the other criticisms. The protests from the Saar, he says, are due to ``street agitators, and political and economic interests.''
Tiny Luxembourg, whose capital city is less than 15 miles from the reactor, tried to persuade France to scale down the size of Cattenom, from four to two reactors. France refused. ``We wanted an arrangement,'' says a Luxembourg foreign ministry official, ``and France told us they're a sovereign country and can do on their territory what they want to do.''
West Germany's Saar state has threatened to prohibit power lines from Cattenom from crossing its territory. This could affect planned exports of electricity from Cattenom to West German factories and to Switzerland.
The opponents of Cattenom, having failed to block the November opening of the reactor in a French court, now have sought action in the European Parliament. This month, they managed to have two nonbinding resolutions passed: one to give neighboring countries a say in running the reactor, and another proposing that plans to put the reactor into operation be suspended altogether.