Government Under Fire for Failure to Disclose Radiation Levels : France to Reassure Public on Delay of Fallout Data

Times Staff Writer

An embarrassed French government appointed a special Cabinet committee Monday to reassure the French population in the face of a bitter controversy over the government’s failure for more than a week to inform the people about the increased radiation coming from the Soviet nuclear plant disaster in Chernobyl.

The government, which until last weekend never acknowledged the extent of the increase in radiation in France, was denounced by several newspapers for lying to the French people.

The controversy erupted when Pierre Pellerin, director of the Service of Radiation Protection, admitted on Saturday that, despite government assurances to the contrary, radiation levels had reached levels in some places at some times of 300 to 400 times higher than normal.


With 44 nuclear plants producing 64.8% of its electricity, France is more dependent on nuclear energy than any other country in the world, and critics implied that the government withheld the truth out of fear of jeopardizing the country’s nuclear program and of hurting sales of its agricultural products.

In a scathing editorial, Gerard Dupuy of Liberation, an influential Paris newspaper, accused both the right-wing government of Premier Jacques Chirac and the Socialist presidency of Francois Mitterrand of lying to avoid offending French farmers and the French nuclear power lobby. Dupuy said that Minister of Environment Alain Carignon was guilty of “cowardice or incompetence or both.”

Barrage of Criticism

In response to the barrage of criticism, Industry Minister Alain Madelin acknowledged that “the information had been passed on badly” and announced the formation of an inter-Cabinet committee “to shed all the light possible” on the consequences to France of the accident in the Soviet Union. He did not announce immediately who would make up the committee or when it would start to issue information.

Meanwhile, Agriculture Minister Francois Guillaume announced that “all scientific information that we have allows me to state that the agricultural products of our territory do not pose any danger.”

But Le Matin, a Socialist newspaper, said that, in view of the government’s duplicity in the last week, it could not accept the minister’s word now.

For more than a week, French newspapers had reported that no significant increases in radiation resulted in France from the Chernobyl disaster and therefore posed no danger to health.

France, a country where nuclear weapons and nuclear power are not a political issue, seemed a serene exception to the rest of Europe where governments, under the prodding of environmental lobbies, fretted about the danger to people and food from increased radiation. It seemed as if an American joke about France had come true--President Mitterrand and Premier Chirac, just as they had refused permission for American warplanes to fly over France en route to bomb Libya last month, had refused the same permission to the Chernobyl radiation cloud.

‘Nothing to Signal’

French newspapers were suspicious. Le Monde published a cartoon late last week showing government officials on the lookout, presumably for radiation. “There’s nothing to signal,” said one. “There’s still not an ecologist on the horizon.” But even skeptical newspapers were not prepared for the truth when it came.

On a television news program Saturday, Pellerin, the head of the Service for Radiation Protection, said, “Atmospheric radioactivity in France, after the Chernobyl accident, had been up to 400 times greater than usually observed but remained well below dangerous thresholds.”

Asked why this information was not announced earlier, Pellerin replied lamely, “Quite simply because there were two holidays (May Day and V-E Day) in two weeks, and it was very complicated to transmit the data.”

Pellerin said that the date of greatest radioactivity in France was May 1, five days after the Soviet accident, and the areas most affected were the Alsace region and southeastern France.