29th Feb 2024

Latvian president criticses nuclear fear-mongering

  • President Valdis Zatlers is surgeon who participated in the Chernobyl clean-up (Photo: Latvian President's office)

A former surgeon who participated in the Chernobyl clean-up operations, Latvian President Valdis Zatlers has warned against "creating fear in Europe" after the Japanese nuclear crisis.

"Two weeks after the [Chernobyl] accident, I spent two months there, in the 30-km zone. In the first nights, I was sleeping on the ground, which was radioactive. So I got a lot of first-hand experience what happens afterwards, what is the damage to nature, what's the real damage to the population and how big is the zone of this damage," Zatlers told this website on the margins of the Brussels Forum, an conference organised by the German Marshall Fund of the US, a Washington-based think tank.

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He said he re-visited the Chernobyl site on the Ukrainian-Belarussian border 33 years after the nuclear accident - so far the worst in history - and added that it will take "about 300 years" for the area to become safe.

Back in 1986, the Soviet government tried to hide what had happened and opened up only when a radioactive cloud reached Sweden.

"At that time, the cloud had already passed over Latvia. Not only didn't they give any information to neighbouring countries, but even we, who were on the inside, were kept in the dark. There were no rescue plans, nothing. It was very sudden. They had plans in case of a nuclear attack, but nobody was prepared for an accident at a nuclear power plant," Zatlers added.

By contrast, he praised the quick reaction of the Japanese government to the quake and tsnuami-struck Fukushima plant.

"I really admire what the Japanese did. They kept the situation under control and they are very prepared. The disaster could have been much bigger than it was. We have to say 'thank you very much' to the Japanese," he said.

"This was not a fault of the nuclear plant, it was a natural disaster ... We have to trust ourselves and the Japanese and focus on the natural disaster, because the problems are much more complicated - lack of food, drinking water, electricity, lack of housing."

The reaction in Europe has so far included EU energy commissioner Gunther Oettinger's talk of an "apocalypse," radiation screening for Japanese food imports and media chatter about radioactive clouds.

Zatlers said: "We need to take a pause. There have always been discussions - is it green, is it clean, is it safe? We have had three accidents: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now, Fukushima, over the past 25 years or so ... It takes some 20-25 years for society to recover from this kind of fear. That's why I want to jump in and stress the need not to create fear, especially when we're so far away from Japan."

He criticised the term "stress test" as used by the EU commission about upcoming Fukushima-inspired checks on European plants.

"Stress test is not the right term, because nuclear technology doesn't allow for any stress. It's a different type of testing, and that's up to engineers to do it. They are necessary, also to give the right information to the population and detect potential flaws," he explained. "I think the Russians will also do the checks, as the Chinese did. This is a global trend and actually a very good signal."

On Germany, where tens of thousands of people in protests this week-end called for shutdowns of the country's nuclear facilities, Zatlers noted that "you can't fight the fear that's coming from the population. Our task is not to increase it."

On Latvia, he added: "We don't have any nuclear plant and not planning to build any either. We have a lot of hydro power - nearly 38 percent of our electricity is produced that way."

For its part, Japan is treating EU safety fears with caution.

"The level of precaution varies from country to country - that's fine. But I hope that these decisions will continue to be based on scientific facts," senior Japanese foreign ministry official Masafumi Ishii told EUobserver at the Brussels event.

"It's up to them to decide. What we can do is provide them with objective facts, so they can base their decision on that fact," he added, on the question of whether EU countries were right to screen imports and encourage nationals to leave Tokyo.

In day-to-day business, Japan wants to start talks on a new EU free trade deal (FTA).

The Union has so far been wary due to fear of extra competition for car makers. "But the mood is changing, as countries now want to show more solidarity with the Japanese people," one EU source told this website. The contact added that an EU-Japan summit at end-May is set to see "exploratory" FTA talks but "no decision will be taken."

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