But Some Policies Change : A Year After Chernobyl, Impact Ebbs in W. Europe

Times Staff Writer

In the northern West German port of Hamburg, children in the city’s 280 government-run orphanages were not given the traditional chocolate eggs for Easter. City fathers believed that radiation levels in German milk chocolate were too high.

In the Austrian town of Zwetendorf, workers started dismantling the country’s only nuclear power station before it produced a kilowatt of electricity.

In Sweden, the government is planning to accelerate the phasing out of its 12 nuclear power reactors by the first decade of the next century.


In the Netherlands and in Finland, the governments have scrapped plans to build new nuclear power stations.

And in the northern reaches of Scandinavia and the northwestern Soviet Union, scientists have found that 80% of the reindeer owned by Europe’s last nomads, the Lapps, now carry radioactive contamination exceeding official health limits for meat, a development that casts a shadow over their future as a separate people.

All this is part of the legacy of Chernobyl. The accident at the nuclear power plant in the Ukraine occurred April 26, 1986, but Soviet authorities did not announce it to the world for two days--a year ago Tuesday. By then, an invisible cloud had started to drift out over much of Europe, carrying with it radioactive iodine and cesium--and eventually leaving a worried, uncertain public in its wake.

For the densely populated nations of Western Europe, which barely a generation ago seized upon nuclear power as the salvation of a continent poor in natural resources, Chernobyl has altered, perhaps permanently, the political debate about nuclear energy and the way that governments deal with it.

Important political parties have turned against nuclear power, while governments are involved as never before in monitoring the operation and safety of their own nuclear reactors as well as those in neighboring countries, to ensure that no disaster like Chernobyl ever happens within their borders.

“I don’t think the world will be the same again,” Andrew Munn, a spokesman at the British Department of Energy, said. “It’s taught governments the need for cooperation. It’s forced countries to divulge information they’ve never given before.”


To be sure, the catastrophe’s visible impact has been less than many had predicted. Opinion polls in some countries such as Britain and Sweden show that public opposition to nuclear power has already receded to pre-Chernobyl levels. The disaster has brought no major overhaul in nuclear plant technology, and large nuclear programs in key nations such as France, Britain and West Germany continue to grow without major protest.

It is also true that Chernobyl did not create the non-nuclear policies in Austria and Sweden. It merely accelerated existing ones.

But many argue that the lack of greater public outcry only masks a powerful disquiet that nuclear energy is a far greater risk today than a year ago.

Subsurface Apprehension

“There’s a definite apprehension below the surface. It wouldn’t take much for it to ignite again,” noted Manfred Petroll, an official of the West German Atomic Forum in Bonn, an organization that promotes the interests of the country’s nuclear industry.

Certainly, governments have dramatically altered their own attitudes toward the risk of nuclear accidents. While stressing the safety of their own programs, these governments have at the same time ordered extensive reviews of reactor operations and emergency procedures.

An unusual level of cross-border cooperation among European countries has also sprung up in the last year, with nations conferring on emergency and early notification procedures more intensively than at any time in the past.


Of the 10 nations that have so far ratified the six-month-old global convention on the early warning of nuclear accidents, nine are European. Countries sharing common borders or located close to each other have strengthened both formal and informal exchanges of nuclear energy information.

For example, contacts between French and British energy officials have increased sharply in the year since Chernobyl, while Finland has signed both a bilateral accord with the Soviet Union and entered a joint agreement with Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

Pressure on Sweden

Danes have also exerted pressure on neighboring Sweden to select its twin nuclear power reactors at Barsebaeck, just across a narrow stretch of water east of Copenhagen, as the first to be shut down.

“Chernobyl reminded everyone that radiation clouds don’t respect international borders,” said Hans Meyer, spokesman for the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. “There’s an increased awareness about safety.”

The IAEA, which once responded to two to three requests a year from countries seeking an independent review of their nuclear operating and safety procedures, now conducts such reviews at a rate of one a month. The reviews are seen as especially important in the wake of Chernobyl because of the extent of human error involved there and in other major nuclear reactor accidents that have been publicized.

Human error also played a major role at the Three Mile Island reactor accident near Harrisburg, Pa., in 1979, for instance, and at a military-run nuclear plant at Windscale, England in 1957.


Political Shifts

Chernobyl has also altered the views of some important political parties in Europe on the issue of nuclear power. After Chernobyl, Britain’s opposition Labor Party and West Germany’s Social Democrats changed their policies in favor of dismantling their countries’s substantial nuclear power generating capacities, shifts that could become significant if they regain power at the national level.

The collapse earlier this year of Italy’s five-party coalition government came about in part because a majority insisted that a decision to commit Italy to a large nuclear program was too sensitive to make without a national referendum.

Despite these developments, much of Western Europe’s nuclear program has been virtually unaffected by the disaster.

4 New French Plants

In France, which relies more on nuclear power than any other nation in the world and where independent control of nuclear power is synonymous with national sovereignty, four new plants have been added to the national grid since the Chernobyl disaster.

The West Germans have started up two new plants, and last month voters in the state of Hesse tossed out a coalition government that had refused a construction license for a nuclear power plant. They voted in Christian Democrats who favor the plant. Those who followed the campaign were mildly surprised that the issue was viewed as pivotal only in the immediate area of the site.

And in Britain, government energy planners decided that Chernobyl was not reason enough to reopen a lengthy public inquiry that recommended construction of the country’s first nuclear plant in seven years.


“All our experience in the U.K. (United Kingdom) has demonstrated that there is a superior safety culture (here) to that which apparently existed at Chernobyl,” Energy Secretary Peter Walker concluded.

The decision brought hardly a public murmur.

Those monitoring reaction to Chernobyl trace this conspicuous absence of public concern in part to reports indicating that the impact of the radioactive fallout over Western Europe is expected to be far less than initially feared.

The most significant of these studies, recently completed by Britain’s National Radiological Protection Board for the 12-nation European Communities, concluded that radioactivity from the Chernobyl disaster would cause about 1,000 extra cancer deaths over the next 50 years within the communities. In the normal course of events, it estimated, about 30 million people would succumb to “natural cancers” in that period.

Such studies give little solace to about 70,000 Lapps whose very existence as a nomadic people has been threatened by the Chernobyl disaster. While the bulk of the Lapp reindeer herds had already moved north of the immediate fallout zone when the disaster occurred, the lichen on which they feed was badly contaminated.

Levels Too High

Tests on the first reindeer meat from last fall’s roundup revealed radiation levels more than 30 times higher than Sweden’s acceptable limit and 15 times that permitted in Norway.

With the herds’ basic feed expected to remain contaminated for several years, Scandinavian governments have concluded that large-scale slaughter of the reindeer is the only alternative.


Governments are transporting hay into the northern regions at a cost of millions of dollars annually in hopes of preserving the animals and the Lapp culture, which relies as much on the reindeer as the American Indian did on the buffalo 150 years ago.

But outside remote Lapland, public concern has receded quickly.

West European environmentalists suggest that one reason for the lack of greater public reaction is an inherent belief that West European reactors are safer than those in the Soviet Union.

“The Greens have always warned that something like Chernobyl could have happened, but we were laughed at,” said Heike Wilms-Kegel, a member of the West German Parliament from the environmentalist Greens party. “Now no one will believe that it could happen here. They say Chernobyl is in Russia, but that’s no excuse.”

A Gallup Poll produced last February for the London-based environmentalist organization Friends of the Earth indicated that anti-nuclear power attitudes, which had increased sharply in the immediate aftermath of Chernobyl, had receded only nine months later to the levels preceding the disaster.

Indeed, the Hamburg city authorities’ pre-Easter decision to ban the distribution of milk chocolate eggs was considered by many to be a dramatic, but largely unnecessary, move.

“The level of radiation in a kilogram of German chocolate is about the same as exists naturally in a liter of human blood,” Petroll, of the West German Atomic Forum, asserted. “It’s hard to see that as a hazard.”


Even in areas such as southern Germany and northern Italy and Greece, where heavy rainfall dumped the highest levels of radiation, time, official reassurances and the absence of visible impact have eased concern.

“Yes, I read in the papers recently that we were still one of the worst hit areas,” a housewife in northern Italy’s Veneto region said. “But nobody seems to take much notice. We carry on eating mushrooms, maize, poultry and beef.”