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September 28, 1995

ED092895a: Chernobyl Times Two


If you think the closest the United States ever came to nuclear disaster was at Three Mile Island, you probably aren't aware of communist dictator Fidel Castro's latest little construction project.

Just 250 miles from Miami, the United States is facing what could be its greatest nuclear threat, in the form of a couple of Russian-designed nuclear reactors under construction in Juragua, near Cienfuegos. The Cubans are building not one, but two, nuclear accidents waiting to happen.

What is so dangerous about these reactors? Here are just a few -- by no means all -- of the problems:

  • The reactors are of the same defective design as the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl that literally melted down, spreading radioactive fallout over thousands of square miles of Russia and Eastern Europe.
  • Sixty percent of the Soviet-supplied materials used in these reactors are defective, according to Cubans who have left the project.
  • The containment dome of the first reactor is designed to withstand pressures of only seven pounds-per-square-inch (PSI), when U.S. reactors are only considered safe -- indeed are only allowed to be built -- if their domes can withstand 50 PSI.
Castro had mothballed the project in the early 1990s because of U.S. objections. But work has resumed. Roger W. Robinson Jr., who worked at the National Security Council under President Reagan, recently told a House committee Castro may be resuming construction hoping to "shake down the U.S. and international communities for some kind of substantial compensatory alternative," as the North Koreans were able to do with their reactor project at Yongbyon. U.S. acquiescence in the recent Russian-Iranian nuclear deal also encourages Castro to pursue his goals.

So the tale of two Chernobyls continues.

With the completion of Castro's nuclear reactors, Cuba will gain a "menacing and even devastating new policy lever" in its relations with the United States, according to Robinson. He says a Cuban nuclear accident would have a similar effect as "the detonation of a nuclear weapon near the United States." Depending on the winds and other weather conditions, nuclear fallout could spread west as far as Texas and race up the eastern seaboard to Washington, D.C., within possibly four days.

Oddly, the environmental community, usually foaming at the mouth over this type of scenario, is silent. Apparently, if the nuclear violator is one of their political heroes, Greenpeace, Worldwatch and other like-minded organizations are not nearly as anxious to chain themselves to construction equipment and halt progress on a nuclear project.

So what can be done?

The fact is that short of a military strike -- which no one is seriously contemplating -- there's not much America can do. The Cienfuegos reactor project is just one more reminder of how vital it is that the United States do everything in its power -- continuing the economic embargo, intensifying it by bringing in other nations, keeping funding for Radio and TV Marti -- to oust Castro and his cronies from power in Cuba once and for all.

In the meantime, Congress also should call on Russian President Boris Yeltsin to remove all technical and financial assistance from the project. If Russia refuses, it should face a cutoff of U.S. economic aid.

Of course, whether the Clinton administration is willing to take these steps depends on how worried it is. I think we should be more than a little concerned about two Chernobyl-style reactors being built -- not all the way across the Pacific Ocean like the North Korean reactors -- but only 250 miles from U.S. shores.

But that's just my opinion.

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Note: Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D.  is president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

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