FIDEL CASTRO'S Cuba, which already flouts world opinion as a sponsor of state terrorism, is in the process of becoming a renegade nuclear nation as well. Now that Moscow no longer subsidizes Havana with cheap oil, 450 Soviet experts and thousands of Cuban comrades are working overtime to construct two Soviet-designed VVER-440 nuclear-power reactors at Juragua, 250 miles south of Key West. Plans call for the two 440-megawatt reactor units - the most costly project in Cuba's history - to go on line in 1993.
The Juragua complex, which will provide cheap nuclear-generated electricity to stimulate the nation's faltering economy, is the vision of Fidel Castro Diaz-Balart, Fidel's eldest son, who heads the Cuban Atomic Energy Commission and sits on the board of directors of the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
A study prepared for the US Department of Energy last year concluded that nuclear reactors with the poorest safety records are either designed by the Soviet Union or located in nations that are not party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Falling under both categories, Cuba is a prospective nuclear safety hazard.
Before the Chernobyl disaster, first generation VVER-440 reactors were the workhorses of Soviet-bloc nuclear programs. But in the wake of Chernobyl, a COMECON safety panel recommended retrofitting to bring them up to an acceptable level of safety. The VVER-440 reactors at Juragua feature some Soviet design improvements. But to obtain the technology that will help ensure the operational safety of the two reactors, Cuba is seeking closer ties with other nuclear nations.
According to the respected industry journal Nucleonics Week, various European and Japanese electronics and nuclear firms are seeking to provide Cuba with high-technology equipment to modernize the instrumentation and control systems of the two Juragua reactors; it appears that Siemens of Germany and Cegelec of France are the leading bidders for the estimated $40 million to $50 million deal. But this proposed deal can only help perpetuate the survival of communism in that country. Because of Cuba's extre me dependence on imported petroleum products, completion of the Juragua reactors could reduce public discontent with the regime as well as open the door for other nations to sell dual-use technology to Cuba's nuclear program.
Officials of the US Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the privately operated International Nuclear Power Organization tend to view Juragua as a positive development that showcases the peaceful use of nuclear energy in the developing world. But Cuba's nuclear cooperation agreements with Iran and North Korea, which are developing nuclear weapons, and India, a declared nuclear-weapons state, raise questions about Castro's nuclear goals. Havana also appears to be seeking a nuclear cooperation arrangement with China, a declared nuclear-weapons state and an aggressive proliferator of dual-use nuclear technology. Like Cuba, China, India, and North Korea are not party to the non-proliferation treaty.
In Latin America, meanwhile, Havana is seeking closer nuclear ties with Argentina and Brazil, also NPT holdouts. However, both nations are moving slowly toward becoming full members of the Treaty of Tlatelolco, which calls for a nuclear-weapons-free zone in Latin America. Cuba was granted observer status last month to OPANAL, the Mexico-based body that administers Tlatelolco. But the treaty will remain frozen in time until Argentina, Brazil, and Cuba become full parties to it.
To improve monitoring of Cuba and other nuclear-treaty holdouts, Washington can support increased funding for IAEA inspection and safety programs. Private nuclear-industry organizations in the US can share information with Havana to help reduce the risk of cross-border nuclear accidents. But Cuba's potential nuclear safety hazards and Castro's unwillingness to hold free elections suggest that Washington should integrate non-proliferation into a tougher policy designed to achieve regional security and ar ms control.