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Cuba and Nuclear Energy: The Juragua Nuclear Power Plant in Cienfuegos

Cuba and Nuclear Energy: The Juragua Nuclear Power Plant in Cienfuegos

Case Number: 469

Mnemonic: CUBANUKE

Name: Cuba Nuclear Reactor and the Enviorment

I. Identification

1. The Issue

Over the last several decades the island nation of Cuba has been faced with an ongoing energy crisis. Depending heavily upon imported oil, the Cuban government has attempted to seek an alternative to oil through nuclear energy. In cooperation with the Soviet Union, Cuba embarked on a project to construct and operate a nuclear power plant in Cienfuegos, known as Juragua. However, the collapse of the Soviet Union halted construction atJJuragua. Recent bilateral cooperation between Cuba and Russia has re-ignited the possibility of Juragua’s completion in the near future. This has drawn condemnation from the United States, which views a nuclear reactor in Cuba as a threat to its national security. The U.S. has cited numerous safety concerns associated with Juragua, believing in the event of an accident it would be exposed to radioactive fallout. This case study will examine the trade and environmental aspects of Cuba’s attempts to establish a nuclear power plant.

Photo Courtesy of Natural Resources Defense Council

2. Description

In 1976 Cuba and the Soviet Union signed an agreement to construct two 440-megawatt nuclear power reactors in the south central province of Cienfuegos, near Juragua, about 180 miles south of Key West, Florida. Juragua’s nuclear reactors are the newest model (known as the VVER-440 model) of Soviet design and are the first Soviet-designed reactors to be built in the Western Hemisphere in a tropical environment.

This arrangement was aimed at alleviating Cuba’s dependency upon foreign oil while bolstering its electricity capacity. The importation of oil has drained Cuba of its sparse hard currency. At the same time the country’s production of electricity has been fraught with difficulties. As of 1992 Cuban power plants have been working at only 47% of their capacity, leading to frequent blackouts. It is believed that this figure has fallen further due to the relative decline in the Cuban economy since 1990. Upon competition, the first reactor, Juragua #1, would generate approximately 15% of Cuba’s energy demands.

Actual construction of the reactors began in 1983. The Soviet Union supplied a majority of the reactor parts, dispatched technicians to supervise construction, and trained Cuban engineers to operate the reactors. According to 1992 GAO report, Russia tentatively scheduled the first reactor to be operational in late 1995 to early 1996. This was due in part to the Cubans constructing the reactor lacking experience and with all critical work being performed by Russians or under their supervision.

However, the breakup of the Soviet Union disrupted construction at Juragua. The newly formed Russian Federation in conjunction with its transitioning into a market economy established new economic ties with Cuba. Current bilateral ties between Russia and Cuba, now, involve providing technical assistance to Cuba on a commercial basis. At the same time the loss of Soviet subsidies to Cuba after 1990 has sent the Cuban economy into decline. As a result, on September 5, 1992, Cuban President Fidel Castro announced a suspension of construction at Juragua due to Cuba’s inability to meet the financial terms set by Russia to complete the reactors. A September 1992 GAO report estimated that civil construction on the first reactor ranged from 90 to 97% complete with only 37% of the reactor equipment installed. About 20 to 30% of the civil construction on the second reactor was completed with the status of the equipment unknown.

Cuban-Russian attempts to resume construction at Juragua took place in October 1995. A high-level Russian delegation with full backing of the government arrived in arrived in Havana to conclude an agreement to complete construction. To raise the estimated 800 million dollars necessary to complete the reactors, Russia and Cuba decided to form a syndicate with potential third parties. Companies in Britain, Brazil, Italy, Germany and Russia expressed interest in an economic association, but as of yet have not concluded an agreement that moves them to take Juragua further than the maintenance phase. Yet, Cuba was rewarded with a 50 million dollar loan from Russia for support work at Juragua.

Cuba now receives financial support for the Juragua plants from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The IAEA has provided nuclear technical assistance in atomic energy development and in the application of isotopes and radiation. The IAEA has provided from 1991 to 1996 about $680,000 to Cuba to develop the ability to conduct a safety assessment of Juragua reactors, and in preserving or “mothballing”, the reactors while construction is suspended. According to a 1997 GAO report, IAEA appropriations to Cuba from 1961 to 1996 totaled 12 million dollars.

Recent events have led to the speculation of resumption of construction in the near future. Although Cuba announced in January 1997 an indefinite postponement in construction, an official from the Ministry of the Russian Federation told General Accounting Officials in February that Russia intends to resume construction of Juragua in 1998. This will be accomplished through an international consortium of countries including Russia.

Cuba’s attempt to establish a nuclear power plant has been met with substantial opposition. Think tanks such as the Center for Security Policy (CSP) believe that the Juragua reactors must not be allowed to operate. In his 1995 testimony before Congress, Roger W. Robinson, Jr, member of CSP’s board of advisors, indicated that the Juragua reactors are inundated with safety problems: structural defects in support structures in key reactor components, integral reactor systems, including the reactor vessels, steam generators and primary cooling pumps were exposed to highly corrosive tropical sea weather, and that as many as 15% of 5,000 approved welds in key reactor equipment were found to be defective. Robinson’s testimony’s indicated that Cuban intelligence knowingly destroyed evidence proving the extent of the reactor’s flaws, making it impossible to take effective corrective action to repair the welds.

CSP’s concerns over safety issues at Juragua have been echoed by academic scientists. A Cuban geophysicist defector observed that Cuba lacks the sophisticated and technological infrastructure needed to support a safe nuclear reactor program. Vladimir Cerverra, who led quality control at Juragua, stated 60% of the Soviet material shipped for the two reactors was defective. Dr. Manuel Cereijo stated that although the Juragua reactors are not similar to the Soviet Chernobyl model they are nonetheless dangerous. Four similar Juragua type reactors (VVER-440) in East Germany were immediately shut down by West Germany upon reunification. Similar plants in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria are currently under inspection, shut down or have received extensive modification.

The critics of Juragua’s viability to operate properly point to the following concerns: deficiencies in construction, lack of safety and quality control during the installation process, the poor Russian design of the instrumentation and control systems, the poor training and experience level of the Cuban personnel who were trained on Soviet model 230 reactors which were different from Juragua. Historically, accidents at nuclear power plants (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl), were due in large part to human error. As a result, critics see the possibility of an accident occurring at Juragua as a strong possibility and the effects of which would be environmentally cataclysmic to the Caribbean, Latin America and the United States.

The construction of a nuclear power plant in Cuba has drawn staunch opposition from the United States. U.S. policy towards a Cuban nuclear power plant reflects the same attitudes of Juragua’s critics, those of great concerns over possible safety problems. A 1992 GAO report addressing the current status of Juragua concluded that, if the reactors were completed, the possibility of an accident was likely. As a result, the U.S. adopted a policy that opposes the completion of both reactors, and discourages other countries from providing assistance except for safety purposes to Cuba’s nuclear program.

U.S. policy to prevent the completion of Juragua has led to increased pressure on Cuba. The Helms-Burton Act of March 1996 unequivocally stated congressional opposition to Juragua. The first article of the law declared a nuclear reactor in Cuba to be “an act of aggression”, establishing a provision that requires U.S. sanctions against any countries that attempt to assist Cuba in finishing the Juragua reactors. From 1981 to 1996 the U.S. withheld its proportional funding to the technical cooperation fund of the IAEA for Cuba. Although this restriction has been rescinded, between 1981 and 1995, Cuba was denied a total of 2 million dollars. At the same time the U.S. Energy Department has refused to include Cuba in its 180 million nuclear safety program established with Russia and former Soviet Bloc states in Eastern Europe, totaling 59 reactors. Currently, Congress introduced legislation to cutoff U.S. funding to the IAEA, 16 million dollars, unless the IAEA suppresses its funding of Juragua. Cuba was slated to receive 1.7 million dollars for the 1997-1990 period.

Photo Courtesy of Natural Resources Defense Council


Category/ies:Nuclear Tech.
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