Latvian president reassures on nuke power

CHICAGO (AP) — A reassuring word about the dangers posed to the U.S. and Europe by radiation from Japan came from an unlikely source Sunday — the president of a Baltic Sea nation who, as a young Red Army medic, witnessed firsthand the horrors of the world’s worst nuclear accident.

Latvian President Valdis Zatlers spent months near Chernobyl after a nuclear reactor there exploded 25 years ago this month. Japan’s response to its nuclear crisis, Zatlers said, has been a sharp contrast to the instinctive secrecy, paranoia and public denial of Soviet leaders in Moscow.

“I can say that the lessons of Chernobyl were taken into account in rescue procedures in Japan,” Zatlers told The Associated Press while visiting Chicago during an official visit to the U.S. He also said there is “close to a zero possibility” that contamination from the damaged Japanese nuclear plant would come to the U.S. or Europe.

Latvia, which regained independence in 1991 after 50 years of Soviet occupation, is among many nations that had been looking to nuclear power. But in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami that severely damaged the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant in Japan, Zatlers said his people may need more reassurance before leaders pursue plans further.

“We haven’t changed our minds (about nuclear power), but the situation has changed,” Zatlers said. “We have to take into account reactions of populations to what happened at Fukushima.”

His is a unique perspective.

After the devastating blast at Chernobyl on April 26, 1986, the Soviet military dispatched him and eventually some 6,000 other Latvians to the region around the Belarussian-Ukrainian border against their will, usually with little to no protective gear, he said.

“We had no choice,” said Zatlers, who would later become a leading Latvian physician. “That was my experience and I will never forget it.”

On his first day at a camp less than 20 miles from Chernobyl, Zatlers and his fellow soldiers had to sleep on exposed, contaminated ground. He remembers how difficult it was to convince some perplexed conscripts about the risks of radiation.

“You can’t see it, you can’t smell it — it’s a danger you don’t understand,” he said. “Either you are too scared or you say, ‘This is nothing.”

Zatlers has closely followed developments at the Fukushima plant, which has been leaking radioactivity since a March 11 tsunami carved a path of destruction along Japan’s northeastern coast. It’s considered the worst nuclear crisis since the meltdown at Chernobyl.

The Japanese response, Zatlers said, is far different from Soviet leaders in the days after Chernobyl exploded, as well to the often crude, shoddy Soviet cleanup.

Latvia and its two Baltic neighbors, Estonia and Lithuania, along with Poland, have discussed a joint project to build a nuclear plant that would supply energy to all four countries, Zatlers said.

But accidents at Three Mile Island in the U.S. in 1979, and then at Chernobyl, showed that people need about 20 years to restore their confidence in nuclear energy.

So it may take years to get over skittishness about atomic power in the wake of Japan’s crisis, he said.

“We have to be 100 times more careful about making decisions,” he said about the need to reassure Latvians about nuclear safety.

He added, “It will take some time, but people will trust nuclear power again.”

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