Cuba's Abandoned Nuclear City

And the People Who Call It Home

Cuba's aging and abandoned nuclear power plant in Cienfuegos. Darmon Richter

In 1976, at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union drew up blueprints for a twin reactor nuclear plant to be built at Juragua, a site just west of Cienfuegos Bay, on the southern coast of Cuba. When completed, the facility would revolutionize the island’s shoddy electric power grid—with just one reactor capable of meeting 15 percent of the country’s energy needs. It would also reduce dependence on expensive oil imports, while creating thousands of new jobs for the country. In order to see this dream realized, a small city was to be six miles from the plant—it would feature 4,200 homes intended for the families of construction workers, scientists, engineers, technicians, and the nuclear specialists flown in from Moscow to oversee the project. The city, which became known as Ciudad Nuclear, or Nuclear City, officially opened on October 13, 1982.


Although the project held much promise, in 1989 the Soviet Union collapsed and Moscow’s funding for Ciudad Nuclear dried up, much to the relief of Washington. Juragua is only 260 miles south of Miami, and Washington could do little at the time to monitor the project’s safety, having cut off diplomatic ties with Havana years before. Havana struggled on for a few years to finish the power plant, draining what resources it had, until 1992, when the nuclear program at Cienfuegos Bay was scrapped. In 1996, Cuba and Russia discussed reviving the project (which had so far cost them around $1.1 billion), by finding other countries willing to invest in the reactor. It never came to pass, however, in part because the United States enacted a law known as the Helms-Burton Act, which allowed Washington to sanction any country helping Cuba to finish the plant.

But Ciudad Nuclear did not die there. Today, although the city is a mess of half-built homes and unfinished concrete towers, a few hundred Cubans—and a handful of Russians—still call it home.

Even after construction was abandoned and four hundred Russian workers

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