US alarm at Russian plan to resume Soviet nuclear plant in Cuba

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The Independent Online
UNPERTURBED by howls of alarm in the US, cash-starved Russia is pressing ahead with plans to finish a half-built Soviet nuclear plant in Cuba, only 170 miles from the coast of Florida.

Officials in Moscow have confirmed that talks will resume next month between the Cubans and the Russians over the completion of two VVER-440 light-water reactors at Juragua, where work has been stalled since shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The issue will add to the strain on Russia's relationship with the US, which has repeatedly expressed its opposition to the plant, both directly to Moscow and to European countries that may seek to supply equipment.

The controversy coincides with fresh concerns in Washington about Russia's energetic drive to sell its nuclear technology internationally, particularly to Iran. Both the US and Israel have repeatedly expressed alarm over a nuclear power plant under construction in the southern Iranian port of Bushehr, insisting that it could allow Tehran to develop nuclear weapons - a claim Russia and Iran equally adamantly deny.

This month Yevgeny Adamov, head of Russia's nuclear ministry, MinAtom, raised the temperature still further by saying that Moscow now wants to build a research reactor in Iran, in addition to the Bushehr project. He said a contract for the reactor was drafted in 1996, but still awaits approval from the two governments.

According to the US, the Cuban reactors would use low enrichment uranium fuel, and would not be suitable for producing plutonium for a weapons programme. The central concern is one of safety. Work on the station, at Cienfuegos, began in 1981 but stopped in 1992 because the Russians were no longer willing to provide Fidel Castro with the necessary funds.

The first reactor is three-quarters complete, and would take up to four years to finish. The second is half-built. Despite its long mothballing, the Russians say that many of the plant's structures are in "excellent state and meet all modern requirements for safety".

Moscow is talking about financing their completion by setting up a Russian- Cuban joint venture. This is unlikely to appease the Americans, where the issue has been a political hot potato for years. Members of Congress have been bitterly opposed to the plant, complaining that it is poorly constructed, increasingly dilapidated and would threaten the lives of millions.

A 1992 study by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the dangers of a Chernobyl-style accident noted that lethal radiation could be carried "possibly as far north as Virginia and Washington DC in about four days". As many as 80 million people in Mexico, Canada, and the US could be affected. None of this is likely to deter Russia. "In May there will be talks between Russia and Cuba about a joint venture to complete the construction of the stations," a MinAtom spokesman told the Independent on Sunday.

Russia's nuclear industry, as Washington knows only too well, desperately needs the money. Starved of promised budget funds - so much so that it has been unable to pay wages on time - MinAtom is hoping to boost its nuclear export income to $3.5bn by 2000.