Americans in Florida soon could face the threat of sickness or
death, and unborn children could face birth defects, due to
radiation poisoning. The source of this threat? Cuban dictator
Fidel Castro has been building two Soviet-designed VVER-440 nuclear
reactors in Juragua, near Cienfuegos, just 250 miles from Miami.
After many delays, these reactors now are due to go on line in 1995
and 1997, respectively. Yet there are indications that the plants
suffer from numerous defects. The Chernobyl nuclear accident in
1986, which killed thousands of Ukrainians and Russians, raises
concerns about any Soviet-designed facility. Construction problems
with the Cuban reactors heighten these fears.
In democratic countries, a nuclear power plant can be built only
after public hearings, and with regulations to assure that public
health and safety are not endangered. In totalitarian Cuba, no such
steps are taken, and so the chances of a defect in the reactors is
increased. A nuclear accident at the Cienfuegos plants, moreover,
would harm not only Cubans, but Americans as well. With serious
questions about the safety of these plants, the Bush Administration
should take urgent action to guarantee that there is no threat to
Americans. In particular, in conjunction with its allies, the
Administration should demand a full, open inspection of the plants.
Further, American environmental groups, most of which have remained
silent about the Cuban nuclear reactors, should strongly back an
Administration demand for inspection.
Questionable Design, Slipshod Construction. At the recent United
Nations-sponsored "Earth Summit" in Rio de Janeiro, Castro received
thunderous applause. This is curious, because he has shown little
regard for the environment of Cuba or the safety of its citizens.
The Cienfuegos reactors, for instance, would not meet minimum U.S.
standards, even if they were constructed exactly according to
design. But to make matters worse, the construction so far has been
slipshod at best. Vladimir Cervera, a defector from Cuba and a
senior engineer responsible for oversight of quality control at
these facilities, has revealed that X-ray analysis showed pipes for
the cooling system -- for the most critical area of the reactor --
were weakened by air pockets, bad soldering, and heat damage. In
all, 15 percent of the pipes in one safety audit, which were
certified for quality by other Cuban inspectors, were flawed. In
contrast, if a single weld in an American reactor has even a
suspected defect, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will halt all
operations until the weld is proven safe.
Another defector, who was a senior nuclear engineer at the
Cienfuegos site, charges that the support structure of the plants
contains numerous faulty seals and structural defects. This
engineer has stated that steam supply system equipment for the
reactors was left outdoors uncovered for over eighteen months. Thus
instead of being stored in a climate-controlled area, it was
exposed to highly corrosive tropical salt air, risking damage to
the critical equipment. If any of this equipment fails in a
reactor, the probability of a nuclear meltdown increases
Furthermore, two-thirds of the Soviet advisors helping to
construct the reactors were called back home when the Soviet Union
dissolved. These were the most experienced and qualified advisors,
and they were replaced by poorly trained Cubans. Further eroding
the level of experience on the site, the training time for Cuban
technicians in the former Soviet Union, always short, recently has
been scaled back. None of these technicians would be certified to
operate a U.S. nuclear facility. Yet they are responsible for
constructing and eventually operating what are likely to be
critically flawed nuclear plants near American soil.
Worrying Reports. There is little chance that the full range of
construction and design flaws will ever be made public by Cuba.
There is no public documentation to show whether the Cienfuegos
plants are being constructed properly. Indeed, worrying reports out
of Cuba suggest that equipment designed for one specific function
is being used for other purposes where the proper equipment is in
short supply, thus increasing the probability of failure. This
would never be tolerated in the U.S. In fact, one American nuclear
facility, the Zimmer nuclear power plant in Cincinnati, Ohio, which
cost $3 billion to construct, was not allowed to operate merely
because some documentation for one stage of the construction
process was missing. Without such information to show that every
aspect of a plant is safe, America's Nuclear Regulatory Commission
properly refuses to jeopardize the lives of Americans.
Also disturbing is the fact that the German government recently
closed all four of the VVER-440 design plants, the same design used
in the Cienfuegos plants, located in former East Germany, because
of construction and possible design problems.
U.S. environmental organizations have been curiously unperturbed
by the Cuban plants, even though they rail against any proposed
nuclear plant in America. They seem prepared to attack the U.S.
nuclear industry, which has very strict standards, while defending
Cuba's construction of nuclear reactors. For example, William Arkin
of Greenpeace stated that "I just didn't find anything that gave me
any cause for concern" at the Cienfuegos plants.
Demanding a Halt. As the 1986 Chernobyl disaster showed,
contamination from a nuclear disaster can travel hundreds of miles.
With Americans at risk in the event of an accident at the Cuban
plants, the Bush Administration should demand an immediate halt to
construction of the Cienfuegos reactors. The White House also
should seek assurances from all industrialized nations that they
will deny Cuba the technology needed to finish construction of
these plants. Further, Cuba still is receiving funds from Russia
for plant construction; Moscow and Havana already have spent some
$2 billion on the facilities. Thus the United States should call on
Russian President Boris Yeltsin to halt all financial assistance to
Cuba until the Cuban government agrees to international inspection
and supervision of the plants' construction.
If the Cienfuegos nuclear facilities are completed, Americans as
well as Cubans will face the threat of sickness or death from an
unacceptably high risk of a nuclear accident. If the declarations
of concern for the environment voiced at the Rio summit are not to
be shown as hollow rhetoric, responsible environmental groups and
democratic governments around the world should join to remove this
John Shanahan, Policy Analyst
© 1995 Persimmon IT, Inc.