Europeans are more wary

The impact of Chernobyl on its neighbors in Europe has been to heighten popular fears about the safety of reactors, to accelerate some existing trends away from nuclear power, and to increase some safety measures and international cooperation in coping with nuclear accidents. The mix of these elements has been different in different countries. (US law would affect nuclear future. Story, Page 3.)

In France, already the world leader in producing 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, there has been virtually no change in ambitious plans for nuclear expansion - despite the fact that southern France got heavier radiation than did West Germany after the Chernobyl reactor explosion a year ago, and that France's Superph'enix has recently had some accidents of its own.

Nor have Belgium (currently deriving some 65 percent of electricity from nuclear generation) and Britain (some 20 percent) changed their plans.

Sweden, by contrast, is accelerating its march toward total withdrawal from nuclear energy. Austrians and Danes see confirmation of their wisdom in rejecting nuclear power in referendums several years ago.

And the conservative West German government, while not changing its concrete plans for gradual expansion of the present 33 percent nuclear share in energy, faces increased popular opposition, especially to its new fast-breeder, high-temperature reactor, plutonium-manufacturing plant, and the uranium-reprocessing plant now under construction in Wackersdorf.

On the weekend anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, major antinuclear demonstrations took place in West Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. Throughout Europe, citizens suspicious of their governments have been forming committees of their own to monitor radiation leaks and levels in food.

At this point, it is still too early to tell, but there are some signs that the greatest change of all may occur in Eastern Europe, where the present modest nuclear program was on the verge of expansion. Popular anger of a year ago at the perceived cavalier Soviet disregard of its nearest neighbors and client states in not warning them about the dangers of the Chernobyl explosion appears to have produced a certain disillusionment with the old communist ethos that sees the engineer as the prophet of society.

West Germany incorporates all of the trends, in microcosm. It has what is probably the stiffest safety requirement of any country in the world. Every plant must be refitted with every new piece of safety equipment that is developed.

West German officials, though they do not exclude that a serious nuclear accident could happen here, do therefore think that a disaster on the scale of Chernobyl is very remote. That accident, they believe, resulted from faulty reactor design - omission of any outside containment shell - and also from sloppy personnel practices that the West Germans have worked hard to exclude.

Klaus Schultze, deputy press spokesman of the West German Research Ministry, finds popular fears about dangers to health and risks of a major accident ``exaggerated.'' He says public opinion, which jumped with Chernobyl from under 50 percent to more than 80 percent opposition to new nuclear plants, is living in ``cloud cuckooland,'' if it thinks Europe can do away with nuclear power without reverting to fossil fuel with its serious pollution and possible ``greenhouse effect'' on the environment.

The antinuclear movement, which sees closure of nuclear plants as a moral crusade, is unpersuaded by this line of argument. Activists are suspicious of those who think they can ensure safety by technology, since the activists hold that it is precisely an overweening faith in technlogy that is the central problem. They contend that nuclear planners have plunged ahead without any idea of how they are going to de-commission retired nuclear plants, or how they are going to dispose ultimately of radioactive waste. Furthermore, they charge that the obtrusive measures required to assure the security of nuclear plants against terrorists (or even just protesters) are so overbearing that they are incompatible with democracy and will inevitably lead to a repressive ``atomic state.''

Paradoxically, the actual policy impact in West Germany of the strong public fears is minimal. Chernobyl has clearly increased the votes for the new Green Party and its demand to get out of nuclear energy immediately. But in splitting the Green left (which demands immediate closure of nuclear plants) off from the mainstream Social Democratic left (which after Chernobyl resolved to close all plants in 10 years), it has helped guarantee that the left will stay out of power probably for the rest of this century.

Certainly Chernobyl has put nuclear power and safety onto every party's agenda in Europe. Although the West German Christian Democrats will proceed with the present program, they set up a ministry for the environment and reactor safety within a few weeks of the Chernobyl accident and agreed to put environmental protection into the Constitution. And even they have set the goal, however vague, of withdrawal from nuclear energy in another 30, 40, or 50 years.

Certainly, too, there is deceleration in nuclear expansion in West Germany, as in most of Europe. Current projections expect nuclear's present 20 percent share of world electricity to increase to only 25 percent by the year 2000.

Safety measures that have been instituted following Chernobyl include some tightening of various national regulations, an expansion of the International Atomic Energy Agency's role from watchdog against military nuclear proliferation to monitor of international reactor safety, and the signing of agreements for international exchange of information and assistance after accidents.

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