Florida fears Cuba's potential Chernobyl Florida fears Castro's latent 'Chernobyl'

PHIL DAVISON

Miami

President Bill Clinton has asked Russia not to complete a dormant nuclear power plant in Cuba, billed as a "potential Chernobyl" that could endanger the Florida coast.

Mr Clinton has also asked Germany, France and Italy to dissuade companies reported to be considering helping finance completion of the plant at Cienfuegos, 90 miles south-east of Havana and 180 miles from the Florida keys.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican Congresswoman from Florida, revealed that President Clinton had sent a letter to the Russian government on 22 June, expressing concern about the Juragua plant, initially financed by the Soviet Union but abandoned by Russia and Cuba for lack of funds in 1992. The President had told the congresswoman of his move in a letter to her, responding to her concerns on behalf of Florida, she said.

The plant's critics, of which Ms Ros-Lehtinen is the most outspoken, say Juragua is "a potential Chernobyl in our own backyard". They cite experts and former plant workers as saying the twin WER-440 reactor plant was badly designed in the early Eighties, badly constructed, has serious flaws and has been dangerously neglected since work halted.

A House of Representatives sub-committee is due to begin hearings on the plant today, inviting nuclear experts and a former Juragua technical inspector who defected to the US.

In spite of the apocalyptic predictions, the "potential Chernobyl" may be no more than a pawn in the endless game of US-Cuban politics. Could it have something to do with 1996 US election pre-campaigning, or Russian bargaining over US aid, or the Cuban leader Fidel Castro's delight in manipulating US politics?

The controversy began in May when, during a visit to Moscow by the Cuban Foreign Trade Minister, Ricardo Cabrisas, Russia said an international consortium was raising the $800m (pounds 512m) needed to complete the water- pressurised plant. It could be up and running by 1997, he said, producing energy which could save Cuba up to five million tons of imported crude oil a year.

Among the companies involved, said the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy spokesman, Georgy Kaurov, would be Siemens of Germany, Ansaldo of Italy and Electricite de France. Sought for confirmation by the Wall Street Journal, however, the Italians said they had "zero" to do with Cuba, the French said they had visited Juragua but were not negotiating any deal and the Germans said the plant could not be completed while the US maintained its trade embargo on Cuba.

Even in Cuba itself, the Russian announcement, despite the presence in Moscow of Mr Cabrisas, surprised many officials, some of whom said taking Juragua out of mothballs was still only at the feasibility study stage and that no foreign companies had signed up.

Rather than water pressure, the Russians may have been thinking more of political pressure. With Florida a key state in US elections, and Republican hardliners threatening to cut aid to Russia, it may be a handy card for Moscow to hold. The Wall Street Journal also suggested the prospect of jobs in tropical Cuba - formerly among the most coveted in the old Soviet Union - might have been aimed at the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy's huge number of idle employees, estimated at over a million.

It is a story that will run and run. In case potential radioactive apocalypse among Floridians is not enough to put Washington's policy-makers off their Chardonnay, critics of the plant are quick to point out that "in the event of a nuclear accident in Cuba, if there were strong westerly winds, radioactive fallout could spread up the eastern seaboard to Virginia and Washington".

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