(Washington, D.C.): Featured stories by NBC Nightly News have revealed that the USSR is in the process of equipping Fidel Castro’s Cuba with as many as twelve Soviet nuclear reactors whose incompetent design, shoddy construction, defective materials and inadequate safety features constitute a real and unacceptable risk to the American mainland. The Center for Security Policy believes that the United States simply cannot tolerate these nuclear accidents-waiting-to-happen and must demand that Moscow immediately suspend its shipment of all equipment, technology and nuclear fuel associated with completion of thisprogram. Until the Soviets agree to do so, there simply can be no consideration given to U.S. taxpayer participation in a "Grand Bargain" financial bailout of the USSR.
"The United States must do at once to Cuba’s budding nuclear program with diplomatic and economic tools what Israel had to do to Iraq’s Osirak reactor with F-16s a decade ago — shut it down," said Frank J. Gaffney, Jr., the Center’s director. "Now, as then, the consequences of inaction are too horrible to contemplate."
"At a time when Mikhail Gorbachev is hounding the American taxpayer to save his bacon with billions in credit guarantees, the least we can expect is that he not be a party to frying ours," added Roger W. Robinson, Jr., a member of the Center’s Board of Advisors and former chief economist at the National Security Council. "No additional U.S. official credit exposure in the Soviet Union, particularly in relation to its energy sector, should occur unless and until Moscow delivers firm and verifiable commitments that all Soviet support to the Cienfuegos nuclear program is terminated."
As Tom Brokaw, NBC’s anchorman, put it on 29 May when he broke the story of this horrifying development:
"The same people who brought the world Chernobyl now are deeply involved in developing nuclear power plants for Cuba, and [Cuban] defectors [involved in the project] are warning that the Soviet material and design are extremely dangerous."
One of the defectors who was in charge of quality control for the Cienfuegos project, Vladimir Cerverra, stated that "Sixty percent of the material the Soviets have shipped us for these reactors is defective." He noted that, in connection with his responsibilities for reviewing X-rays of critical cooling pipes inside the nuclear reactors:
"We found a lot of defects: bad soldering, burns, air pockets on X-rays that had been approved. Fifteen percent(1) of what has been approved is defective. The [Cuban] state security system is covering this up because they want the plant to go on line 7he pipe defects we’ve seen can cause radioactive leaks, meltdowns, another Chernobyl."
Another Cuban defector, geophysicist Tose Oro, observed that the complete absence of the sophisticated human and technological infrastructure needed to support a safe nuclear reactor program seriously compounded the risks inherent in the Soviet-Cuban scheme. He said, "My country does not have the capacity to run the reactors safely. Building them is an act of megalomania by Fidel."
Actually, whether intended as such or not, building reactors of this design — known as VVERs — amounts to an act of incredible malevolence toward the United States on the part of the Soviet Union. Four VVER reactors built with Soviet assistance on formerly East German territory were recently shut down by Bonn following a series of radioactive leaks. According to NBC, "One plant came close to a meltdown."
The German official charged with shutting down those reactors, Dr. Adolf Berkhoffer, stated that "They had quite a few incidents in the past and we found that the lessons learned from those incidents did not necessarily lead to improvement." An American expert, Dr. Edward Purvis, who headed a Department of Energy investigation of Cuba’s reactors put it even more starkly: "An accident in [the Cuban VVER] reactor is probable. It’s just a question of when….I don’t know if they are the most dangerous reactors in the world, but they are the most dangerous reactors anywhere close to the United States."
The U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration has calculated what the effects of such an accident might be — and they extend far beyond the likely deadly contamination of Cuba, itself. According to NBC’s summary of this study, the day after the disaster could witness radioactive fallout "stretch[ing] from Key West to Managua, Nicaragua. [By] Day Three, the cloud could cover Miami and Tampa, Florida. Within the first week, most of the Eastern Seaboard, portions of Texas and Louisiana, plus all of Mexico might be at risk."
Incredibly, the Bush Administration’s response to such a prospect has been to hope — against all the evidence — that the Soviets and the Cubans will not make any mistakes. Yesterday, Deputy State Department Press Spokesman Richard Boucher described U.S. policy in strikingly clear terms: "Our understanding is that the design of these reactors contain essential safety features very similar to U.S. standards." This is a claim flatly repudiated by the Department of Energy study led by Dr. Purvis which noted that there were "both significant and extensive" differences between the Cuban VVERs and U.S. commercial reactor designs. Indeed, not since Three Mile Island has the American nuclear industry suffered a greater setback to its image and credibility than that delivered by Spokesman Boucher.
Today, Boucher announced that "Cuba has access to technical assistance needed for safe operation of its nuclear power program, both through bilateral arrangements and through the International Atomic Energy Agency." A nuclear industry trade publication, Nucleonics Week, recently revealed that the State Department had gone so far as to issue a general advisory to other nations indicating that the U.S. would have no objection to them providing Cuba with safety-related technology and support. At least one German company, the Kraft Werk Union Power Engineering Division of Siemens, has taken them up on it — negotiating a barter deal with the Cubans said to be worth roughly $40 million. Under its terms, Siemens would replace the reactor instrumentation and control mechanisms supplied by Moscow.
Unfortunately, neither foreign nor U.S. expertise or equipment will correct the fundamental material and infrastructural problems inherent in the Cienfuegos nuclear program. To put it bluntly, the Cuban reactors are time-bombs; once they are set ticking by being loaded with Soviet-supplied nuclear fuel, it is, in all likelihood, merely a matter of time until at least one goes off.
What is more, beyond the obvious safety considerations that are associated with the Soviet-Cuban nuclear scheme, there are serious political, environmental, energy and technology security and strategic issues involved in any decision to help Cuba manage its dangerous reactors or otherwise abet its nuclear development scheme. For example:
- Having called for free and fair elections, a free press and respect for human rights in Cuba, the Bush Administration presumably wants to see an end to the Castro regime. If so, it is difficult to understand why the Administration would want to see the Soviets — who are being forced to reduce oil exports to Havana — cushion Fidel against the effects of such a cut-off in this manner.
- The Soviet Union and its clients have historically been disposed to pursue — for strategic reasons as well as economic ones – actions with immense and devastating ecological implications. The Siberian gas pipeline, North Korea’s Great Dam project and Saddam Hussein’s destruction of Kuwaiti oil fields are all examples of initiatives that put Western interests at risk in more ways than one. It is no coincidence that these initiatives, like the Soviet-Cuban nuclear program, are all energy-related.
- Even taking into account the wholesale decontrol of militarily relevant technology announced by the Coordinating Committee on Multilateral Export Controls (COCOM) last week, the transfer of dual-use nuclear-related systems and know-how would appear to represent a breathtaking departure from prudent technology security policies.
- Given Castro’s frequent ravings against the United States, the possibility cannot be excluded that an increasingly desperate Fidel might use the threat of purposeful destruction of Cuba’s nuclear facilities as a device to maintain power at home and secure urgently needed technical and financial support from overseas.
The Center for Security Policy views the Cienfuegos project as tantamount to eco-terrorism, with the gravest imaginable implications for the American people. It must be stopped. Congress should follow the lead of Senator Connie Mack (R-FL) who has demanded that the U.S. govemment say to the Soviets: "Do not deliver any more technology, no more equipment, no fuel rods for that facility until there is an independent investigation to make sure that [the Cuban reactors are] being constructed safely."
In addition, the Center believes that any prospective financial, technological or energy-related assistance to the Soviet Union be explicitly conditioned on the immediate termination of Moscow’s support for the Cienfuegos nuclear project. Under no circumstances should the State Department be permitted to prescribe embargo-busting American economic and technological life support to Cuba’s nuclear program under the guise of "enhanced safeguards."
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1. Interestingly, the mere suspicion that a single weld in a U.S. nuclear reactor has been improperly performed can result in the denial of Nuclear Regulatory Commission certification, pending proof to the contrary.