New York Times - 27 Apr 87

Prof. Robert B. Laughlin
Department of Physics
Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305
(Copied 28 Aug 09)

Europe After Chernobyl: Cooler Attitudes Toward Nuclear Power

Published: Monday, April 27, 1987

A year after the Chernobyl disaster sent a cloud of radioactive debris drifting across much of Western Europe, those European countries already committed to nuclear power are pushing ahead with their nuclear programs.

Britain has just authorized construction of the first of a new generation of nuclear power reactors. West Germany recently started up a new reactor, its twenty-first. France - which leads the world by meeting 70 percent of its electrical consumption needs with nuclear energy - continues to build new reactors at a rate of about one every 18 months. Overall, Western Europe gets about one third of its electric power from nuclear reactors.

Radiation levels have returned to normal over most of the continent, though the sale of reindeer meat and freshwater fish from northern Scandanavia is still banned.

Pierre Pellerin, director of France's Central Protection Service Against Ion Radiation, asserted that "the effect on European public health is rigorously nil."

In a report prepared for the European Community last month, however, Britain's National Radiological Protection Board said the Chernobyl accident may cause up to 1,000 cancer deaths in Western Europe over the next 70 years, although the percentage seems small when compared with the the 60 million cancer deaths that would have been expected. Changes in Attitudes

Yet Chernobyl appears to have significantly affected Western European attitudes toward nuclear power. Opposition to nuclear power has hardened in many European countries.

The Italian Parliament has halted work on the country's four unfinished reactors. Finland, Holland and Greece have canceled or postponed plans to acquire new reactors since Chernobyl. Sweden, which had already committed to abandoning nuclear power by 2010, now plans to shut a first reactor by 1995 and a second by 1996.

And in nations that retain a commitment to nuclear energy, left-wing political parties have grown more adamant in their anti-nuclear statements, raising the possibility of a policy change if they come to power.

Britain's Labor Party proposes to phase out nuclear power over several decades. West Germany's Social Democrats want to abolish it within 10 years. All Italian parties to the left of the Christian Democrats, the country's largest party, oppose nuclear power. Only in France is there still an all-party consensus in favor.

"For the first time a serious nuclear accident has become a real, not a theoretical, possibility," said I. C. Bupp, the author of a new study on nuclear power after Chernobyl. "That's bound to affect attitudes." No Technical Changes

Investigations by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris concluded that the Chernobyl accident was specific to a particular type of Soviet reactor and did not call into question the safety of Western reactors. "No new safety measures were needed on Western reactors," said Thomas Roser of the Deutsches Atom Forum, a body representing Germany's atomic industry.

As for reactors under construction, the impact of Chernobyl was lessened by the fact that the number of of reactors proposed or in progress has declined, since there is little demand for more electricity.

West Germany has only three reactors still under construction. But in West Germany, authorities in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia are still blocking the start-up of a nearly completed reactor at Kalkar. France's latest reactor at Cattenom on its eastern frontier has provoked large and violent West German protests.

While recent opinion polls show that West Germany's existing nuclear power plants now command the same majority support they enjoyed before Chernobyl, they also show rising opposition to building any new nuclear reactors in the future.

Although Britain's Conservative Government is pushing ahead with construction of Sizewell B, the first of a planned series of new-model reactors, political opposition to the program appears strong at the local level and there are signs that the Government is quietly scaling back its plans. French Consensus Wavers

Even France's traditional political consensus in favor of nuclear power has been shaken by recent accidents at its Super Phenix fast breeder reactor and at a uranium enrichment plant. The opposition Socialists have demanded the creation of an independent commission to oversee safety at nuclear plants and the leading trade union has called for Super Phenix to be shut down until the cause of a leak is found.

A recent poll found that 53 percent of the French questioned would try to move if a nuclear power station were built nearby.

With Europe's power needs now largely satisfied it is only in the mid 1990's that a significant new demand for generating capacity is expected to arise. Siemens, West Germany's biggest nuclear reactor constructor, and France's state-owned nuclear constructor both believe that new demand for nuclear power stations will develop then.

But other experts like Mr. Bupp think Chernobyl has produced "a subtle shift" in attitudes toward nuclear power among politicians and business executives. He predicts that Europe will gradually follow the example of the United States, where the last new reactor order was placed in 1973, and move toward natural gas and coal-fired electrical generators.