The $800 Million Question: Is Cuba Building a Potential Chernobyl in US Backyard?

CUBA'S energy crisis, due to a lack of oil, affects almost everyone everyday. At night, blackouts are as commonplace as fried plantains, and bikes outnumber cars on streets. But now, Cuba thinks it has a solution.

Across the bay from Cienfuegos, at Juragua, is a nearly finished Soviet-designed nuclear reactor, which if started could solve the country's energy crisis.

For Cuba, which imports 70 percent of its energy, a successful nuclear program is considered essential. For US officials and even some of the plant's designers, it is a disaster waiting to happen - 180 miles from Florida shores.

The plant at Juragua was mothballed three years ago when Cuba ran out of money. But last month on a visit to Havana, Russian officials offered to help finish the plant. To do this, Russia said it would form a global consortium to generate the $800 million needed to finish Cuba's only nuclear-power facility.

The revival of the Juragua plant has sparked warnings from nuclear experts, engineers who have worked on the facility, and US lawmakers.

''The construction of the plant was being performed in a completely negligent and reckless manner,'' says Vladimir Cervera, who worked in the plant's quality-control department before coming to the US in 1990. ''Workers improperly installed water pipes and welded parts of the reactor, both of which could heat up the core and cause radiation.''

THE Nuclear Regulatory Commission has also expressed concern about Juragua, its design, and the personnel operating it. An NRC study of the plant warned that Cuba ''has no experience in management, training, and development of a safety culture,'' and worst of all, Cuba has ''no cadre of trained personnel and no independent regulator'' in the safety area. The bottom line? ''NRC would not license the reactor.''

If a disaster were to happen at the plant, the General Accounting Office has concluded that ''radiation would be spread as far as Texas and Virginia.''

''The deteriorating conditions at the plant could lead to such a disaster,'' says Keith Fultz, a GAO investigator. ''For instance, the reactor vessel - the plant's most sensitive piece of equipment - has been left in a shed instead of storing it in special containers to prevent corrosion.''

Washington has long opposed construction of the plant, and lawmakers have stepped up pressure to halt the project. The GOP-led House of Representatives voted in June to cut aid to Russia by $15 billion if construction of the plant went ahead. ''These plants should not be allowed to be put into operation,'' says Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R) of Florida. ''This is a potential Chernobyl right in our own backyard.''

Warnings from the US stand in sharp contrast to Cuban and Russian forecasts.

''The plant meets international standards and the lessons of the Chernobyl catastrophe have been taken into account,'' says Isaac Alayon Gutierrez, the director of the plant at Juragua. ''All the experts recognize the accusations are groundless.''

Mr. Gutierrez says he and his staff have been denied US visas three times to attend nuclear- safety conferences. As a result, the safety concerns about the Juragua plant are unlikely to be quelled. In addition, because of the US embargo on Cuba, a US solution is barred by law.

''The US expects to spend up to $150 million to improve the safety of Russian-designed nuclear reactors thousands of miles away,'' says Harold Denton, a former NRC official. ''But because of the strict embargo, it cannot spend one penny on the safety of this reactor....''

All the controversy over the Juragua plant has not deterred Cuban officials in the least. With foreign investors lining up, the nuclear plant could be up and running in as early as 18 months.

''In effect, the US is playing a high stakes game by not playing a role in what is happening at the reactor,'' warns Mr. Denton. ''And if the reactor does go on line, the United States may never know how safe it is until it's too late.''

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