In our little room, he told us that morning about the time he had spent in the USSR. He’d only been in Havana a few hours, after an Aeroflot plane had brought him back from his long sojourn in the land of Gorbachev. The gothic letters on his diploma showed he’d graduated from the university in some kind of engineering my childish mind couldn’t understand. It was the first time I’d heard about the Juraguá nuclear reactor, which was built in Cienfuegos in 1983. The recent arrival’s voice described an enormous VVER 440 reactor located in central Cuba as if it were a live dragon breathing its whiffs on us. Hundreds of young people, trained in research centers nearly 6,000 miles from home, would work there as atomic scientists. Millions and millions of rubles arriving from the Kremlin helped to construct what would be the pinnacle of our “tropical socialism,” the fundamental pillar of our energy independence.
Later I learned that this young enthusiast never worked as a nuclear engineer. The Soviet Union was dismembered just as the first of two planned reactors was 97% complete. Grass covered a good part of the site, and exposure to the elements broke down everything from pieces of the core, to the steam generators, the cooling pumps and the isolation valves. Juraguá became a new ruin, a monument to the delusions of grandeur left us by Soviet imperialism.
With his graying temples, while cutting metals in his new career as a lathe operator, the one-time expert told me now, “It was lucky we didn’t start it up.” According to what he and his colleagues had calculated, the chances of an nuclear accident at Juraguá were 15% more than at any other nuclear plant in the world. “We would have ended up with the island cut in half,” he said dramatically. I imagined a piece of the nation here and another over there, while a stubbornly smoking hole changed our national geography.
Now that the plant in Fukushima is spreading its residues, and with them fear, I can’t but rejoice that the Cienfuegos reactor has not awakened, that under the concrete sarcophagus a nuclear reaction hasn’t started. Thinking about all that has happened, all of our current problems seem small to us, insignificant trifles compared to the horrifying spread of radioactivity.