Nuclear safety experts from leading industrialized nations said today there was no need for western governments to take any emergency measures as a result of the Chernobyl disaster.
The reassuring statement from the safety committee of the Nuclear Energy Agency came against a background of widely differing precautions taken by West European countries following the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the Ukraine. The Paris-based agency is made up of representatives from 23 major western countries, including the United States, West Germany, France and Scandinavia.
Public reaction to the Chernobyl accident within Western Europe has ranged from indifference in France to high anxiety just across the Rhine River in West Germany. It has reflected political and social conditions in each country as much as the real hazard to public health, in the view of commentators here.
At today's meeting, the nuclear safety experts noted that the 200 nuclear reactors scattered around Western Europe all differ in design from the graphite-moderated reactor at Chernobyl. They said that, on the basis of what was currently known about the accident, it was unnecessary to make any changes in nuclear safety standards in the West.
The experts, representing government regulatory agencies, also said that the accident had so far caused "no important risk" to public health in any of the agency's member countries.
Following the accident on April 26, many countries imposed public health restrictions, ranging from temporary restrictions on grazing cattle outdoors in Sweden and Denmark to a 15-day ban on the sale of green vegetables in Italy. In parts of West Germany, children were advised to stay away from school in the event of rain. The Netherlands has frozen plans for a new nuclear power plant.
The odd country out has been France, the world's second largest producer of energy after the United States. There is a strong national consensus here about the benefits of nuclear power, and, until tonight, no special precautions had been taken since the disaster.
Friday night France banned all imports of fresh food from Eastern European countries, except East Germany, Reuter reported from Paris. A French government spokesman said East Germany was excluded because it was not on a list drawn up by the European Community of countries whose food products could be contaminated.
["France has decided to anticipate an EC move (to ban food imports) because it was facing the risk of having imports containing radiation," the spokesman said. "The risk was minor, but we have felt we should not take it," he said.]
"France remains unflappable in an ocean of fear," wrote the Paris daily Le Monde today in a front-page report. The newspaper attributed the remarkably low-key reaction to the political weakness of the environmental movement in France, compared to neighboring countries.
The contrast was most startling in the eastern French city of Strasbourg on the Rhine, which is connected by a bridge to the German town of Kehl. While inhabitants of Kehl have been advised not to drink fresh milk or eat lettuce, people living a few hundred yards away in France were totally oblivious to any danger from Chernobyl.
"The French are nuclear freaks. They associate nuclear power -- both bombs and power stations -- with national independence. It's a package deal," commented Jacques Rupnik, a researcher at the Political Science Institute in Paris.
As Le Monde noted today, so great is France's dependence on nuclear power (65 percent of the country's electricity supply is nuclear-generated) that practically everybody in the country lives near a nuclear power station. Protests against the development of new power stations have come largely from German environmentalists across the border.
The director of the French nuclear protection institute, Francois Cogne, said at today's press conference that France would "draw lessons" from the Chernobyl disaster when it received technical data on the cause of the accident. But he described precautions taken by other countries as "totally premature."
A West German safety expert, Adolph Birkhofer, said that many of the precautionary measures imposed in his country had been the result of "overreaction" by local authorities. He said the federal government in Bonn had concluded that no significant changes in safety standards were necessary.
Speaking individually, most experts said they thought that the period of maximum danger from Chernobyl was now over.