Just before the earthquake measuring 6.6 on the Richter scale struck Greece on Feb. 24, national newspapers had been devoting their front pages to a tremor of a different kind.
The surprise increase of 80 percent in household electricity bills received in February had shocked consumers and led to a rash of lawsuits against the state-run Public Power Corp., which cited rising oil costs to explain the jump in domestic power rates.
A week after the earthquake, public attention was once more focused on the issue of energy. In a nationally broadcast television interview, visiting seismologists Dr. Carl Meyer and Dr. Ota Kulhanek of the Uppsala Seismological Institute in Sweden warned that the Greek government's plans to develop nuclear energy in the coming decade, to offset a highly inflationary dependence on imported oil, would have to contend with the problems of siting nuclear reactors and disposing of radioactive waste in an earthquake-prone region such as Greece.
The effect on public opinion was swift. In a subsequent poll, seven out of 10 Greeks in the Athens area (where just under half the country's population in concentrated) said they opposed nuclear power plants, compared to five out of 10 in 1979.
The broadcast also spawned the first signs of a Greek antinuclear movement. The Panhellenic Organization for Ecological Research, a nonprofit watchdog organization that so far has been in the vanguard of the antipollution drive, announced a seminar on the hazards of nuclear power to be held this month. Another environmentalist group, the Panhellenic Ecological Movement, has called for protest demonstrations and teach-ins.
The nuclear-energy issue was quickly seized by the opposition Socialist Party, which told Parliament that, "given the present facts, everyone's position should be no to nuclear reactors." The Socialist Party, which in the past has conditionally endorsed a nuclear-energy program is considered a strong contender in the general election to be held next fall.
"Public opposition to going nuclear is to be expected, and so is the politicization of the issue by the opposition," said Georghios Pappas, general secretary to the Ministry of Industry and Energy. "There is a certain alarmist mythology surrounding nuclear energy and our task is to convince people that it is no more dangerous than any other kind. Developing atomic power is a must for Greece," he added.
Domestic resources currently being exploited for energy include lignite, a soft coal, and hydroelectric power, which between them account for 28 percent of Greece's needs. The remaining 72 percent is covered by oil, all of which so far has had to be imported. In 1980, Greece purchased 12 million tons of oil, mainly from the Soviet Union, Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Esso, for a total cost of $2.64 billion. The oil bill in 1980 amounted to 65 percent of Greece's foreign exchange earnings (roughly equivalent to the earnings from tourism), and high oil costs are largely responsible for the country's widening balance of payments deficit.
That deficit is expected to increase from $2.1 billion in 1980 to $3 billion this year. Oil costs are also fueling the inflation rate, which at 26 percent is currently roughly double that of the other nine European Community states. i
In recent months, these costs have been exacerbated not only by OPEC price hikes, but also by an approximately 18 percent devaluation of the drachma against the dollar, a double blow when it comes to oil imports since oil is paid for in dollars. The drachma was unpegged from the rising U.S. currency prior to Greece's accession to the community on Jan. 1.
As a member, Greece is also bound by the community's energy policy, which is committed to reducing dependence on imported oil in favor of nuclear power. Following February's antinuclear protests at Brokdorf, West Germany, an anxious European Commission told the 10 member energy ministers that the community was "paying heavily" for delays in nuclear energy programs because of public concern. Oil now provides just over 50 percent of the community's total energy needs, which the commission wants reduced to 40 percent by 1990.
That year is also the target date set by the Greek government for the operation of the country's first 900-megawatt nuclear power station. A feasibility study on the project currently is being carried out by Ebasco Inc., an American firm.
Responding to written questions, Ebasco said that "several areas" have already been identified where development of nuclear-plant sites seems feasible.The company added that areas affected by the recent earthquakes were excluded early as regions with a long history of seismic activity. While not identifying the potential plant sites, Ebasco noted that the criteria used for their selection are those set by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, except for instances where "additional restrictions" have been imposed by the Greek authorities.
The awarding of the feasibility study contract, roughly valued by Pappas at "$3 to $4 million," to an American company has not made the government's position easier in the nuclear controversy.
The involvement of foreign -- particularly American -- expertise or finance in such a key area of Greek life is guaranteed not to sit well with a xenophobic electorate. And the opposition press has been alleging that the Public Power Corp.'s gains from the recent inflated utility bills will go in part to finance the contract with Ebasco.