Deadly Meltdown

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Nuclear foes are clearly spoiling for a fight. That is nowhere more true than in West Germany, where confrontations between protesters and police have long been common. Says Dieter Kersting, a leading opponent of plans to build a fuel-reprocessing facility in a forest clearing near the Bavarian town of Wackersdorf: "The Chernobyl catastrophe clearly strengthens our position." Noting that officials have consistently called the chances of a meltdown virtually nil, Kersting added, "Who can believe those assertions now?"

The mishap comes at an awkward time for Britain, where planners are eager to build a new generation of nuclear plants. While Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher declared last week, "The record of our own nuclear-power industry is absolutely superb," Chernobyl could force long delays in approval of the utilities. Once the disaster became known, environmental groups quickly called for demonstrations.

In the Netherlands the Cabinet postponed debate on two new atomic plants and announced a special safety investigation. The decision followed newspaper editorials demanding such a move. The conservative Amsterdam De Telegraaf urged caution, calling for a promise "that not even a single shovel will be put into the ground for the construction of new nuclear energy plants" until the Soviet accident is fully analyzed and understood.

Defenders of nuclear power scrambled last week to distance themselves from Chernobyl. "The design of the Russian reactor is unique," British Environment Secretary Kenneth Baker told Parliament. "There is no other station like it in the world. British engineers have evaluated this design and rejected it as unstable." James Moore, a vice president for power systems at Westinghouse, concurred: "The Soviets racked up an open car going 100 miles an hour. We drive 30 miles an hour in a tank. We have taken the conservative approach."

France, which gets a world-leading 65% of its energy from the atom, seems to have weathered Chernobyl without incident. The French have virtually no antinuclear movement to contend with, and most view their atomic energy plants as a source of pride rather than a problem. "French opinion overwhelmingly favors nuclear power," says Bertrand Degalassus, a spokesman for France's atomic energy commission. In Japan, which draws 26% of its electric power from atomic reactors and has virtually no natural energy sources, the future ) of nuclear use seems secure. The government of Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone last week stressed the safety of Japanese generators.

The Chernobyl disaster is likely to have political and diplomatic repercussions that reach far beyond that small Ukrainian town. When the Soviet Union was faced with a major crisis last week, its leaders reacted in a historic defensive style. Rather than opening up to explain how the Chernobyl accident happened and how the rest of the world could protect itself, Moscow built up a wall of silence that showed a contemptuous disregard for its neighbors.

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