A nuclear power complex nearing completion in Cuba is generating safety concerns among federal and other experts who question the quality of workers on the project 150 miles from Florida.
One scientist, Cuban defector Jorge Oro, said in an interview that the absence of adequately prepared workers could lead to a nuclear accident with devastating effects not only in Cuba but throughout Florida as well.Several American experts agreed that the quality of the Cuban work force was worrisome, but none felt the consequences would be as severe as Oro suggested.
One U.S. government expert, asking not to be identified, described Oro's doomsday prediction as "very highly unlikely" because of the safety features the Cubans are installing.
At issue is a four-reactor nuclear complex Cuba is building at Juragua near Cienfuegos along the southern coast. Completion of the pressurized water reactors is not expected before the end of 1992.
Uncertainty about the reliability of Soviet oil supplies has given the project added importance for Cuba, which hopes to become as energy independent as possible.
For American experts, perhaps the most reassuring aspect of the project is that the design is far more comparable to the American nuclear facility at Three Mile Island, where damage following a 1979 accident was limited, than to the Soviet installation at Chernobyl.
Most experts agreed that the safety devices at Juragua, including 5-feet-thick concrete and steel domes encasing the reactors, preclude off-site contamination of the kind that occurred at Chernobyl in April 1986.
At the same time, most had doubts about the quality of the Cuban work force.
"They need to familiarize themselves with the culture of nuclear safety," said Harold Denton, a senior official at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who visited the project two years ago.
"The key to safety is whether they assemble a cadre of well-trained and attentive operators," he said. But the likelihood of a major accident is limited because of the safety procedures, Denton said.
The Soviets had about 3,000 technicians in Cuba until two years ago, but a withdrawal has been under way and the figure is expected to drop to about 1,000. The remaining technicians will assist Cubans at strategic projects, including the nuclear operation, according to Soviet diplomats.
Gary Milhollin, a nuclear non-proliferation expert and former member of the NRC board that licenses power plants, said, "No matter how foolproof you try to make a reactor, a poor operator can defeat the best hardware."
Even in the event of low-level contamination following a nuclear accident in Cuba, Milhollin said the costs would be high in Florida because it would trigger an exodus that would disrupt countless lives.
But William Arkin of Greenpeace, an anti-nuclear environmental group, said he believes the level of Cuban technical skills is high. He's inclined to dismiss warnings that a disaster is in the offing.