The Abandoned Communist Reactor That Could Have Killed Millions

By Ashley Feinberg on at

Just 90 miles off the tip of Florida lies a half-baked, abandoned relic of the Cold War-era arms race, which was once going to a joint Cuban-Soviet nuclear reactor. And thank goodness 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 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 commie 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 pressurized 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 Reactor That Could Have Killed Us All

The Abandoned Communist 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 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; 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 Reactor That Could Have Killed Us All

The Abandoned Communist 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 necessarily mean the Soviets would have been able to implement it properly or — more importantly — safely. Pretty much every protection system and diagnostics in place were behind western standards:

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.

The Abandoned Communist Reactor That Could Have Killed Us All

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 Reactor That Could Have Killed Us All

Even the project's own engineer's 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 percent 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 the nightmarish reality.

The Abandoned Communist Reactor That Could Have Killed Us All

The Abandoned Communist 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.