Cuba's Abandoned Communist Nuclear Reactor

The Abandoned Communist Nuclear Reactor That Could Have Killed Us All

Just 90 miles off the tip of Florida lies a half-baked, abandoned relic of the Cold War-era arms race — what was once going to be a joint Cuban-Soviet nuclear reactor. Thank God it never panned out. Because not only do we now have these incredible shots from photographer Darmon Richter, but every last aspect of this thing would have been a total and utter disaster.

The Abandoned Communist Nuclear Reactor That Could Have Killed Us All

It all started back in 1976, when comrades in communism, Cuba and the Soviet Union, agreed to build two nuclear reactors near Juragua, Cuba. And if it had ever been finished, just one of these 440-megawatt reactors could have satisfied over 15 per cent of Cuba's energy needs. As The New York Times explained when construction officially ceased, this wasn't your everyday reactor:

The V.V.E.R. design, which was the most advanced at the time, was the first to be exported by Moscow for use in a tropical climate. It differs from the Chernobyl-style design in that the radioactive core and fuel elements are contained within a pressurised steel vessel.

Construction didn't start until 1983, which gave Cuba 10 years to build their potential-livelihood, all thanks to the the steady flow of Soviet funds. Of course, when the Soviet Union fell in 1991, the essential funds ceased, over 300 former Soviet technicians returned to the motherland, and all construction came to a standstill — despite the fact that 40 per cent of the heavy machinery had already been installed.

The Abandoned Communist Nuclear Reactor That Could Have Killed Us All
The Abandoned Communist Nuclear Reactor That Could Have Killed Us All

Still, it wasn't over quite yet. The whole project spent nearly a decade in limbo, until finally, in 2000, Fidel Castro told Vladamir Putin that he was done with the two countries' former joint-dream. Now, the power plant at Juragua was officially little more than a testament to what could have been — which is a very good thing. Because as it turns out, "what could have been" basically entailed wildly dangerous conditions and potentially a whole mess of destruction.

The Abandoned Communist Nuclear Reactor That Could Have Killed Us All

According to a 2000 report from Manuel Cereijo at the College of Engineering at Florida International University:

The possibility of an accident occurring at Juragua, upon its operation, according to experts, is 15 times greater than the probabilities in a United States plant. According to air weather patterns around Cienfuegos, it would take only 24 hours for radioactive materials to reach Florida.

It wouldn't just be Cuba and the US facing a fallout threat, though. All of Central America and the Caribbean could have been directly at risk of radiation in the (relatively likely) event of an accident. And even if everything had gone according to plan, Cuba still would have been faced with the problem of dealing with the inevitable nuclear waste — because as it stands, the itty bitty island of Cuba would have had no suitable place to dispose of it. In which case, off to the ocean it'd go.

The Abandoned Communist Nuclear Reactor That Could Have Killed Us All
The Abandoned Communist Nuclear Reactor That Could Have Killed Us All

During constructions, Cuba's "solution" was to dump the waste in a sea-level patch of ocean near the plant itself. And as Cereijo's report explains, "this would contaminate flora, fauna and the Cuban population." So, less than ideal.

What's more, just because the design itself may have been advanced for its day doesn't mean the Soviets would have necessarily been able to implement it properly or, more importantly, safely. Pretty much every protection and diagnostics system in place was behind Western standards:

The Abandoned Communist Nuclear Reactor That Could Have Killed Us All

The reactors have poor leak-tightness of confinement. There is also an unknown quality of plant equipment and construction, due to lack of documentation on design, manufacturing and construction, and reported instances of poor quality materials being re-worked at plant sites. There are also major variations in operating and emergency procedures, operator training, and operational safety among plants using VVER-440.

In addition to being poorly built, even if there was a problem on the horizon, workers would have absolutely no idea until it was too late; Cuba had no preventative method of monitoring radioactivity levels. So if/when disaster did strike, South Florida would have less than a day before toxic materials reached its shore. And everyone within an 18-mile radius of the accident would effectively find themselves in a so-called "dead zone" — an area in which nothing could possibly survive.

The Abandoned Communist Nuclear Reactor That Could Have Killed Us All

Even the project's own engineers had grave concerns about what it was they were being asked to build. In 1994, an engineer-turned-Soviet-defector essentially called the reactor a tragedy waiting to happen. According to a 1994 paper published in The Nonproliferation Review, a journal covering weapons and their environmental effects:

Defector Vladimir Cervera, a senior engineer responsible for overseeing quality control at the reactor, stated that x-ray analysis showed that the welding pipes for the cooling system were weakened by air pockets, bad soldering, and heat damage. Of the pipes that were originally approved, 15 per cent were later found to be flawed.

Another defector, Jose Oro, a senior nuclear engineer at the site, stated that the support structure of the plant contains numerous faulty seals and structural defects, and that the steam supply system has been left outdoors and uncovered since December 1990. This would have exposed the equipment to highly corrosive tropical salt air, risking critical damage.

If the Cold War hadn't ended when it did, these frightening possibilities may very well have become a nightmarish reality.

The Abandoned Communist Nuclear Reactor That Could Have Killed Us All
The Abandoned Communist Nuclear Reactor That Could Have Killed Us All

Thankfully, though, these photos and some abandoned, absurdly faulty machinery are all that remains of Cuba's attempt at nuclear power. And at least for now, that's not likely to change.

You can head over to The Bohemian Blog to see more of Darmon Richter's incredible photos of this threat-turned-graveyard-of-communist-dreams here.

[Bohemian Blog - New York Times - Federation of American Scientists - Juragua: Radioactive Fallout Threat - Cuba's Nuclear Power Program and Post-Cold War Pressures]

All photos republished from The Bohemian Blog with permission.


Comments

    The possibility of an accident occurring at Juragua, upon its operation, according to experts, is 15 times greater than the probabilities in a United States plant. According to air weather patterns around Cienfuegos, it would take only 24 hours for radioactive materials to reach Florida.

    But the US have 62 power plants, meaning an accident in the US is more likely to 'Kill us all'.
    Also, the article seems to imply that it's okay if cuban's die, but the potential radiation could also effect 'Muricah, with it's people who matter.
    Pretty poor

      American article copy pasted here. whats new.

        You don't think it's an interesting article? That's why I brought it across, because I found it thought provoking.

          oh i definitely think it is. the the writing is very 'American Propaganda - down with Cuba' :) doesn't sound like something an Aussie wrote is all. I prefer to just look at the pretty Urban Decay pictures anyway.

            I know what you mean, yeah. I did just remove a superfluous "commie" from the text, but yeah, take it with a grain of salt

            #murica

        Another poster complaining about free interesting articles because they (oh-my-god) were sourced from somewhere-other-than-Australia. What's new?

      I don't think the article implies that. The sentence you quoted says the possibility of a Juragua accident was 15 times that of in the US, so more 'dangerous' in that sense. I think it's apples to oranges anyway, since 62 are in the continental US and one is in Cuba.

      For what it's worth, I did just remove the word 'commie' from one of the sentences, which I think was totally irrelevant. Appreciate the feedback.

        I agree, the article is a worthwhile topic, it's how the whole thing is slanted that's wrong.

        Perhaps I'm reading into a subtext that's not there, but there is much more focus on the impacts to Florida rather than the devastation to cuba.

        Good move on the 'commie'. Perhaps it's meant to be ironic?

        Afraid I am a bit confused by your aversion to the use of the term "commie". Using it is entirely appropriate. We are talking about the attempt by a tropical offshoot of a world-wide, mass-murdering criminal conspiracy led by a bearded maniac to build a nuclear reactor that could well have contaminated the entire Caribbean and Florida as well. You people seem to think Fidel Castro was some kind of hero or legitimate political leader. He was and is a thug and a common criminal. I would ask you to read a bit about his university days, when he gunned down fellow students. Or perhaps his later massive support to terrorism, drug-running, political murder, human rights violations, etc. To say nothing of totally trashing Cuba, now a sad, ruined land (I lived there for two years, by the way). Get your head out of your behind before you talk about Cuba, or, as it will one day be known, Haiti, MK II.

    If America knew about these risks and the project was continuing on plan, I'm pretty sure they would have done something to put a stop to it.

    Another story about how great US and their technology is.
    I cant agree more with "rethilgore", as interesting as it is, we Australians dont enjoy the American bulls**t that much but thank you for the article, a bit of history...

    One more thing, all of the US reactors have Russian technology in them, that is if anyone is interested. Even the US spaceships use Russian technology...

    Last edited 10/10/14 11:07 am

      I'm interested. Do you have a source for further info?

    Love the photos though -
    My brain says "Abandoned reactor project" but my heart says "Half-Life"

    "In addition to being poorly built" No, it wasn't. All the information referring to "poor quality" and dangerous stuff is hearsay and inference, with weasel phrasing like "reportedly" and "lack of documentation" etc. Even a lot of the "bad seals" which is part of the only real poor quality stuff written about were actually discovered in testing, which is a good thing and the damage due to corrosion after 1990 was when the project was already winding down anyway and subsequent degeneration of the materials would have only strengthened the case for people who wanted to stop the project.

    It's good that they never went nuclear but cut out the Communist/Russian bashing of "bad design" "Bad materials" schtik. It's inaccurate, biased, and... "poor quality" :)

    US has 62 reactors? Funny, I thought they had 104 a year ago, had either 5 or 6 close last year, so we're on about 98.
    France has 58, Japan did have 54, lost 6 at Fuk u shima, all closed down now anyway. UK is 15, I think; close 'em all, I reckon. Wind and solar cheaper now, anyway. Here in UK we're working on stopping a new one at Hinkley Point; we'll win.

    We all know from Fukushima how advanced and safe the West's nuclear plants are in comparison.

      You are aware that the Fukushima plants that are currnetly spewing radiation were built by General Electric, that fired engineering staff who disagreed with their safety.

    By moderation I hope you do not mean censorship. I am sure your readers are big boys fully capable of taking criticism without going potty in their pants.

    My brother in law worked as an electrician on that nuclear reactor and it was announced that Castro cancelled it because he and the Cuban leadership were guaranteed by Russia that this design was safe but when Chernobyl blew up in April 1986 then Castro said this is proof that the guarantee is false and that the reactor would never be allowed to be built. END.

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