The last tattered remnants of the Cuban nuclear program.
1 August 2014
On Cuba’s Caribbean coast, there stands a monument to another age; an age when this island’s friendship with the Soviet Union posed a growing concern for Cuba’s North American neighbours.
Cuba depends heavily on imported fuel. It probably doesn’t help matters that most of the vehicles here are gas-guzzling “Yank Tanks”; the country has an estimated 60,000 classic American cars on the road today, high consumption Chevrolet, Ford and Dodge vehicles, which were shipped over prior to the 1962 trade embargo.
Cuba’s revolutionary government, headed by Fidel Castro, had long been looking for a solution in the form of nuclear energy… and that solution seemed to arrive in 1976, after talks between Cuba and the USSR resulted in an agreement to construct a twin-reactor nuclear plant near the southern town of Juragua. Funded with Soviet money, early projections suggested that the completion of the first reactor alone would have catered to over 15% of Cuba’s energy needs .
Construction began in 1983, as the foundations were lain for the two reactors along with a sizeable turbine hall at a site close to the Caribbean. The Cubans even built a new city to house the site’s workers, “Ciudad Nuclear”, which to this day stands largely empty and unfinished (more about that soon…).
The United States, however, opposed Cuba’s nuclear program from the get-go. The Juragua site lays just 180 miles south of Florida’s Key West; and the US was less than enthusiastic about having two 440-megawatt Soviet-built nuclear power reactors at their back door, citing the potential for an accident as a “threat to its national security”. One can only imagine their growing horror then, when in 1986, another Soviet reactor went into critical meltdown at the Chernobyl facility in Ukraine.
Nevertheless, the Cuban-Soviet team pushed on with the construction. Progress was slow, owing to the fact that inexperienced Cuban engineers had to be supervised by Russia’s own nuclear experts… and by 1992, Moscow was tentatively suggesting a 1995-6 completion date for the first reactor.
However, the fall of the Soviet Union would have a crippling effect on the project. The money from Moscow dried up, and in September 1992, Fidel Castro announced the Juragua project temporarily suspended. The first reactor was estimated somewhere around 90-97% complete, with 37% of equipment fully installed; the second reactor had not reached more than 30% completion.
There have been numerous talks since then, about bringing the Cuban nuclear program back to life. First in 1995, when the Russian Federation granted Cuba a $50 million loan for support work at the Juragua site. It still fell a long way short though, of the estimated $800 million required to complete the two reactors.
Again in 1997, an official from the Ministry of the Russian Federation stated their intention to resume construction of the Cuban nuclear power station. President Vladimir Putin visited Cuba in 2000, and supposedly offered Fidel Castro $800 million with which to finish the project… which Castro refused. However in October 2013 Cuba’s new president, the younger brother Raúl Castro, accepted Russia’s gesture of ‘brotherly love’: and Putin cancelled $32 billion of debt owed by Cuba to the Soviet Union.
So will Cuba’s nuclear power station ever be completed? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Either way, I decided it was about time I got in there and had a good look around, before the facility started filling up with hazardous radioactive material.
The Juragua Power Plant
I visited Cuba in April 2014, and after my chaotic arrival in Havana one of the first things I did – along with a pair of willing co-conspirators – was to rent a car and head out on a road trip towards the unfinished nuclear power plant near Cienfuegos.
Our plan was simple: we were going to try and talk our way inside the site.
Minimum wage in Cuba runs at around $8 a month. Of course, the socialist nature of the country means that this isn’t quite as bad as it sounds – with free healthcare and education, along with state housing, and food rations that will almost keep hunger from the door; safe to say however, in such an economy the majority of workers will be glad to take a bribe.
Near Juragua we turned off the highway, to follow a maze of hot tarmac tracks which led through the fields, between crops and grassland, past the derelict shells of a half-dozen auxiliary buildings, to finally reach the main entrance to the power station. There were men at work somewhere inside, the concrete husk ringing with the sounds of hammers and scaffold poles, the occasional burst of a welding gun.
Leaving the car parked in the shade of an abandoned warehouse, where long-horned cattle rested amidst a cloud of angry flies, we walked the final approach on foot.
The road was straight and smooth, so that the guard had seen us coming long before we arrived at the broken, overgrown forecourt. He was tall, dark skinned, and wore a crisp, official uniform not dissimilar to those worn by Cuban police. The guard had no firearm that I could see – only a baseball bat, which lay propped up against the wall of a small, run-down hut. Whether it was there for sport or security, I couldn’t say.
One of our party spoke reasonable Spanish, and so he stepped forward to address the guard; explaining our innocent intentions, gesturing to our cameras, making a meaningful pat of his wallet inside his pocket. The man simply shook his head though, and we all understood the gesture. The conversation continued, the stakes rose higher… but still it was a no.
It might have been the presence of the work crew that deterred this man: more eyes to observe the transaction, more mouths that might report him to site authorities. Or perhaps, there was already something untoward taking place at the power station. Perhaps the team of workers were looting the place for scrap metal, and our presence risked an exposure of the bribe he’d already taken.
Of course, it was equally possible that the guard simply wouldn’t accept a bribe on moral grounds – and as we walked back to the car, I wondered whether it said more about me or about him, that this possibility only came as an afterthought.
Our rejection by the guard was disappointing – but naturally, it served as no real deterrent. This only meant that we would need to resort to stealth, if we were to get a glimpse inside the power station.
I’m no nuclear engineer, but I’m aware that a power station of this size generates tremendous heat… and would usually utilise water as a medium for releasing that heat in the form of steam. As a result, power plants tend to need some kind of water source; usually a purpose-built reservoir, but perhaps a power station built here on the Caribbean coast might take advantage of its natural surroundings instead.
We reached the car, and under the watchful gaze of the security guard we drove back in the direction of the highway… before taking a sharp turn off the road, and heading down a disused track towards the beach.
The Turbine Hall
The sun was just beginning to set over the Caribbean, before the terrain beneath us changed… and we stumbled from golden beaches and rock pools, to compacted gravel, concrete shapes half lost beneath the sand. Two huge concrete pipes jutted out from the tropical vegetation to our right, their inflows nose-deep amongst the crashing waves. Crabs sunbathed on the abandoned structures – large red and black creatures with claws bigger than my fist – but as we approached, crunching across the gravel, they turned in alarm and disappeared back beneath the waves.
The twin pipes were long disused, cracked and wrapped in barnacles and seaweed, connected inland to the end of a deep concrete canal. This in turn led away from the beach, beneath a mass of vines, creepers and thick waxy leaves, towards the distant dome of the nuclear power station on the horizon.
We pushed into the vegetation – ducking under the trailing fronds, following a crude path that had grown obscured with years of disuse. Beside us, the water that sat stagnant in the canal had long since turned foul; and as we passed by, thick clouds of mosquitoes rose up from the black, algae-covered liquid.
It was a massacre.
The insects outnumbered us a thousand to one, and any efforts we’d made to be discrete were soon destroyed. We sprinted through the swarm, waving our arms and slapping hard at exposed skin as the bites came thick and fast. Veering away from the putrid water, we swung out into a grassy clearing and suddenly there it was – towering above us, behind the skeletal shell of the turbine hall, rose the great cylindrical column of the so-nearly-completed first reactor.
From this angle there was no sign of life – the guard we’d met, the whole team of workmen – and so we ducked back into the bushes as we tried to assess security. The mosquito bites, however, had grown unbearable. Spotting a grey brick structure up ahead, where a darkened doorway appeared to lead down by way of steps beneath the earth, I decided to make a break for it.
Diving into the shadows I left the insects far behind, and flicking on my torch, began to make my way carefully down into the underground levels of the power station. I was hoping for tunnels, for some kind of basement that would take us all the way through to the reactor building; bypassing the bugs, and the wide-open spaces where security would be most likely to spot us.
I followed a pitch-black passage which wound its way from the foot of the stairs, eventually opening into a large, cavernous chamber walled in rough concrete. There was a rustling sound all about me, a clattering, skittering sound at ground level, and as I brought my torch beam down level with my feet I found myself stood amongst a sea of nervous red land crabs. And then the bats woke up.
My torchlight had, it seemed, disturbed a colony of sleeping bats, who dropped silently, one and then another, from the ceiling. They circled me in a cloud; large, grey-brown wings beating at the stale air in the humid basement chamber. I got out of there very quickly.
Back above ground, I found I was able to brave the mosquitoes with renewed optimism; and we crept closer to the main building, through a scrap yard filled with broken machines, rusted mechanisms most likely never used. A wall, perhaps eight feet in height, separated us from the first reactor. Hopping up on a mound of rubble I peeked over the top – I could see the entrance gate, around the curved flank of the reactor, where four men stood talking on the tarmac. I dropped back down.
Beyond the wall, between us and the guards, lay a square enclosure out of which the main reactor rose like the gnarled stump of an ancient concrete tree. To reach it, however, we’d need to hop the barrier and make a dash across the open space.
Instead we turned towards the turbine hall – the bare cube which rose up maybe eight floors beside us, this side of the barrier and almost spitting distance from the column of the reactor. There was a chance it might offer us access, another tunnel, a passage free from bats, perhaps, but at the very least this shell of a building would give us a better view over the heavily guarded first reactor compound.
The turbine hall sat right on the mouth of the canal; sucking the Caribbean through a concrete weir and up into the condenser. At the rear of the building great chunks of masonry had fallen away, to land in drifts and mounds of rubble that lay piled between the station and the weir. We leaped across to land on one of these stacks, and scrambled up the sliding slope into the building itself.
The central part of the pumping station was given over to a massive framework of girders, but rather than pass beneath the scaffold we ducked instead into a passage hidden inside the wall. It was from this same building that we had earlier heard the sounds of men at work – and though the working day seemed to have reached an end, the station floor was too empty, too open a place to risk being caught.
We followed the passage instead, working our way up through bare, grey corridors, one floor after another. The crabs had found their way into every part of the building, it seemed; they lurked in dark corners, hid in piles of rust and rubble, ducking for cover as we approached.
Reaching the third floor, I came level with an opening in the northern wall… and here we stopped, caught our breath, as we gazed out on the central courtyard, the walled compound and its iron gates, the guards patrolling the entrance and in the middle of it all, towering above us like some colossal concrete deity, the sixteen-storey hulk of the nuclear reactor glowing golden in the setting sun.
Inside the Cuban Reactor
From our vantage point in the turbine hall, we watched the guards for a while. Observed their movements. Their interactions. These were young recruits, and there was no sign of the uniformed man who’d earlier refused us entry. They slouched, argued and jested, though they never once left their post at the entrance to the reactor compound. My best guess was that the allotted guard had called out friends to keep him company on the night shift.
Meanwhile, directly below us, where a narrow alley cut between the security wall and the back of the turbine hall, we had spotted a gap in the brickwork – a hole large enough to climb through, that had been hastily patched up with a few clinging strands of barbed wire. It lay just outside any line of sight from the security post… although to get inside the first reactor column, we’d still need to follow the curve of the cylindrical tower, pass between the two reactors and dangerously close to the guard, before climbing up and in through an iron bulkhead door. It was the only shot we’d get, so we took it.
A few minutes later we were creeping along the perimeter wall, listening out for voices as we approached the breach ahead. Suddenly the silence was cut in half by a blood-curdling scream. My heart skipped a beat and I held my breath, until the sound came again and I heard it for what it was: a goat. A very distressed goat, somewhere inside the walled enclosure.
I found myself thinking back to a conversation I’d had in Havana; about “Santería”, a Cuban form of voodoo whose rituals traditionally involve animal sacrifice. Beyond the wall, the goat screamed again.
All the while, we kept creeping closer to the hole in the barrier. It was within reach now, and we were already stepping over – and ducking under – the barbed wire that trailed from the gap like old stitches from a wound. The goat screamed some more, closer this time, and we heard the young men laughing as they taunted it. It sounded as though they were playing some kind of cruel game… and as the bleating grew quieter, drawing attention away from us and towards the opposite end of the enclosure, we took our chance and ducked through the breach.
We sprinted across the gap between the wall and the concrete monolith, the ground rough and uneven in the fading light. Hitting the rounded side of the reactor we skirted about it anti-clockwise, away from the place we had last heard the guards. Keeping ourselves tucked in as close to the wall as we could, we reached the doorway – a rusted iron blast door that swung open with a heavy creak. In a moment we were inside, pushing the door closed and switching on torches.
The bare chamber was riddled with deep holes, square pits that dropped away into darkness. According to some of the local stories we’d heard, the reactor went as far beneath the ground as above. We crossed carefully to the other side, where a series of steps led up and through another door, into the reactor proper.
Here the building twisted in on itself, a labyrinthine knot of winding passages. We followed the circular corridor to ninety degrees, then stopped and listened for the sound of pursuit. Nothing came. Inside the reactor, the thick walls seemed to muffle all noise, stopped echoes dead. If the guards hadn’t seen or heard us enter, then they certainly wouldn’t detect us now.
From this point on, it was simply a case of unravelling the maze. We followed the curving grey corridors past graffiti scrawled in chalk, simple socialist slogans such as, “¡Patria o Muerte!” or: “¡Socialismo o Muerte!”
At one-eighty degrees, we met the main staircase – little more than unfinished concrete shelves, that jutted out of the walls at forty-five-degree angles to create a zigzagging track up the inside of the building. The uneven steps were scattered with rubble and debris, so that we had to pick our way carefully in the darkness. Then, at the top of each flight, the shelf simply stopped. There was nothing joining one side to the other, and so each time we crossed we were stepping over a gradually increasing drop down to the reactor floor.
Every now and again we would leave the stairs behind, to head back inside the winding passages. These fed out into an assortment of chambers, some furnished with half-built apparatus, others open and bare. We found rooms full of pillars, festooned in switch boxes and wires… others with arms and frames presumably designed for holding something delicate. In one corridor, we found the torn up fragments of an architectural plan.
And everywhere there were bats.
Large bats in shades of orange and grey, bats that hung twitching from the beams above us. From time to time, one would wake up and flutter about in the darkness before regaining its perch and going back to sleep. After my experience in the tunnels earlier, this time I was careful to keep my torch beam low.
Back on the staircase, progress was getting harder. Higher up the shaft the rubble was piled thicker, so that the stairs had lost definition beneath a smooth scree of tumbling bricks and dust.
At the end of each flight we would step carefully from one side to the next; over a seemingly bottomless pit that fell away beneath us, ten storeys down, then eleven, then twelve…
Somewhere around the fourteenth floor, we headed back inside to a corridor lined in heavy metal doors. The higher we climbed, the more precarious the structure became; whereas the ground floor had been designed for human traffic, up here we were walking on narrow gantries, edging around deep, empty concrete chasms. I stepped through a door and climbed maybe five feet down to the floor beyond. Beside me a metal hatch opened onto a massive tank beneath, that I can only guess had been intended for a steam generator.
We climbed to the top of the reactor – the sixteenth floor – where a break in the roof above us filtered pale sunlight down to spill across the rubble-strewn stairs. Above this, one last level spread out beneath the domed containment structure, half-lit by the pink light that flooded in through a westerly window.
This was it: the best view in the house.
I sat down beside the bulkhead to appreciate the panorama. Beneath us rose the turbine hall, its highest beams still eight floors far below. Beside that, the outline of reactor two, which never made it beyond three floors and looked now more like a garden maze than a power plant. Then beyond that, sweeping around the green headland in a wide, shimmering arc, the lazy sun set in hues of pink and yellow behind the distant tides of the Caribbean.
 A lot of the background information in the first section of this report comes from the TED Case Study, “Cuba and Nuclear Energy: The Juragua Nuclear Power Plant in Cienfuegos”.