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Cuba’s unfinished power source

On a humid coastal plain opposite the city of Cienfuegos sits an imposing monolith — huge, windowless and rusting. Depending on who you ask, the Soviet-built reactor complex at Juragua is either a threat or merely a socialist albatross.
/ Source: NBC News

On a humid coastal plain opposite the city of Cienfuegos sits an imposing monolith — huge, windowless and rusting. Depending on who you ask, the Soviet-built reactor complex at Juragua is either a threat or merely a socialist albatross. Which it turns out to be depends largely on whether the Russians pick up where their Soviet predecessors left off, and finish building the plant. President Vladimir Putin’s trip to Cuba this week may provide some hints.

BASED ON CURSORY knowledge of the details, the United States has long been concerned about the safety of the two nuclear reactors built along Cuba’s south central coast, fearing that a nuclear accident could spread radioactive contamination as far north as Washington, D.C. and as far west as Dallas, Tex.

But it is unclear whether the plants will ever be completed. The Russians, while claiming they will pay the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to finish and fire up the reactors, have yet to put their money where their mouth is.

So far, the Russians have not provided the Cubans with nuclear fuel, without which the reactors are little more than metal-and-concrete shells. “Most important, there is no nuclear material at Juragua, there never has been, and all indications are that there never will be,” said John Lottman, part of the Center for Defense Information team that was the last U.S. group to visit the reactors in October 1997.

“It is still dead in the water, nothing,” said Gene Aloise, the deputy director of the General Accounting Office (GAO) nuclear programs and the author of two studies on Cuba’s nuclear plans. “Nothing going on down there. Every six months, every once in the while, the Russians make a statement that they want to finish it, but even Castro said it was a dead issue.”

POLITICAL POINTS Even so, in 1998, Congress approved more than $3 million to build and maintain a Caribbean Radiation Early Warning System [CREWS] — six monitoring stations around the Caribbean to check for radiation leaks from the half-completed reactor. The sensors were located on the Florida, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas coasts as well as the Yucatan peninsula.

So far, only one site is contracted and online, but the Pentagon, which budgets the CREWS funding, is working on the others.

While some see this project more as a move to satisfy the anti-Castro Cuban Americans constituency in the United States, there is still no doubt the plants would face serious scrutiny under U.S. safety laws, and the prospect of an accident is taken seriously even by those friendly to Cuba.

The two reactors, located 150 miles east of Havana and 240 miles south of Miami, were under construction for nine years, from 1983 through September 1992, when Cuba shut down construction in a dispute with Russian nuclear authorities. Russia refused to pay the $120 million cost of an advanced instrumentation and control system for the reactor. Since Cuba was at that time virtually bankrupt, it ordered the construction halted and what had been built to be mothballed.

The Russians want to complete the reactor because it is their nuclear industry’s export model and want to generate confidence among potential customers. In the effort, the Russians even invited the United States to join in the project as a way of salvaging it, but the Washington refused.

The two reactors are the last vestige of a 1978 deal between Cuba and the former Soviet Union. The original plan called for 12 reactors — four each at Juragua, Puerto Esperanza in the western part of the island, and Holguin, in the east. The Soviets ultimately pared down the reactor plan to two, both at Juragua.

By the time the Cubans halted construction, the first reactor was nearly complete. Civil construction, such as floor and walls, of the first reactor was about 90 percent complete, but the reactor equipment, such as pipes, pumps and motors, was still only about one-third finished. Civil construction of the second reactor is thought to be about one-quarter finished, and the status of equipment for the second reactor is unknown.

InsertArt(891748)At the time of the shutdown, the Cubans estimated the reactors could be completed in a little over three years. By some U.S. estimates, that timetable could be reduced to two years. By others, it would take a year to reconstitute records, retrain and requalify workers and another two to three years to finish the first reactor. But about half of the Soviet-trained staff has either left the island or has gone to work in other businesses throughout Cuba. One example: the former purchasing director for the reactor project now runs a Chinese restaurant in Havana.

Estimates of how much it would cost to finish the reactor range from $300 million (according to a 1993 Cuban estimate) to $750 million (a 1995 Russian estimate, based on a study by an Italian engineering firm. That study called for Russia to contribute $349 million, Cuba $208 million and a third investor $193 million. It was up to the Cubans to find the third investor ... but it never was able to and last year agreed to put those efforts on the back-burner, with Castro saying that finishing the reactor has been indefinitely postponed. The inability of the Cubans to find an investor, noted U.S. intelligence, is as good an indicator as you will find to gauge the economic troubles Cuba finds itself in.

“If Cuba’s economy had long-term prospects, what better investment could there be? Getting in on a project to provide cheap energy to a growing economy,” said one U.S. intelligence official. “But there were no takers.”

InsertArt(891749)So the Cubans have shelved the reactors, but not abandoned them completely.

The Cuban reactors are basically third generation VVER-440. The first, VVER-440, model 230’s, had no containment vessels. Four of them were shut down at Griefswald, Germany after unification and four others built in Bulgaria were recommended for shutdown by the IAEA, an unprecedented act. They continue to operate, however.

The construction of the reactors has always been a high priority for the Cubans and the Russians, with the Cubans calling it “the project of the century” prior to 1992. Director of the program until that time, when he was fired by his father for incompetence, was Fidel Castro Diaz-Balart. Castro’s only son, “Fidelito” is a Soviet-trained engineer. He now works in the Ministry of Basic Industries following reports of corruption.

Cuba is believed to need an electrical generation capacity of 3,000 megawatts by the end of the century. That means that each of the two reactors would provide a significant percentage — about 15 per cent — of Cuba’s electricity needs.

The only official U.S. visit to the plant came in October 1988 when Harold Denton and top executives from Duke Power visited the plant site for three days. His trip report, obtained by NBC News under the Freedom of Information Act, noted then that there were problems becoming evident.

“Various standards used are based solely on Soviet documents, and there were some difficulties in understanding the Soviet criteria; two particular concerns of the Cubans are corrosion from the salt air/water and the adequacy of welding.”

Under the title, “Cuba Needs Considerable Safety Assistance,” U.S. officials noted that the Cubans had “no involvement in design, no experience in foundations of technology, especially in management, training, and development of safety culture, no Cuban nuclear utility experience, especially in operations and maintenance, no Cuban institutional checks and balance, no independent safety organizations, no cadre of trained personnel.

“While the design is much improved over the older model 230 and includes emergency systems for a spectrum of design basis accidents and a containment, there remain numerous areas where Western Standards are not met. NRC would not license the reactor.”

Then, in 1991, the chief welding inspector at the reactor defected while at a refueling stop in Gander, Newfoundland, en route to Moscow. His comments provided more ammunition for critics. Vladimir Cervera-Cruz told NBC News: “Sixty percent of the material the Soviets have shipped us for these reactors is defective ... serious defects.” And when he began checking out welds in the reactor’s plumbing, “we found a lot of defects ... bad soldering, burns, air pockets ... on X-rays that have been approved. Fifteen percent of what was been approved is defective. The state security system is covering this up because they want the plant to go on-line. The pipe defects we’ve seen can cause radioactive leaks, meltdowns ... another Chernobyl.”

As a result of his testimony and that of other defectors, the GAO took several looks at the safety aspect, as did the Department of Energy. The U.S. policy was best laid out in a 1995 letter from then Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary to Senator Jesse Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “If construction of these reactors were resumed, and the reactors completed, their poor construction and lack of regulatory oversight and uncertainties about the qualification and experience of its operators would pose serious safety risks.”

“The quality of the civil construction, the condition of critical reactor components, the regulatory structure and nuclear operating base, the plant staff training programs, industrial infrastructure in Cuba required to support the operation and maintenance of nuclear power plants.”

“If a poorly designed, defectively constructed nuclear reactor began operation in Cuba, there would be an unacceptably high possibility that a large accidental release of radioactive material would occur, and dependent on the meteorological condition at the time of a major accident, people in the United States mainland could be exposed to significant airborne radioactive contamination.”

The Cubans dismiss all this as politically motivated. In fact, the level of distrust between the two nations over this program has a long history. Cuba has long believed the United States would attack the reactors in a crisis and this fear evidently was incorporated into the design. A 1991 Department of Energy study of the reactors notes that the containment and reactor building “incorporates a number of unique design features” including protection against “external explosive blast-wave loading.” The report’s author told NBC News that translates into protection against bombing.

However, the United States is not concerned about Cuba using the reactors to develop nuclear weapons. No Russian reactor fuel or any other nuclear materials have been delivered to Cuba. Also, Cuba has signed the Treaty of Tlateloco, which established the Latin American Nuclear Free Zone. Along with Soviet-required safeguards agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the treaty requires blanket non-proliferation commitments from the Cubans. And U.S. intelligence officials have repeatedly told NBC News that there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest Cuba would use any of its nuclear facilities for weapons research or development.

Robert Windrem is an investigative producer for NBC News.