By Jim Loney
MIAMI, Jan 27 (Reuters) - Scientists are setting up a network of air-monitoring stations around the Gulf of Mexico to track potential radiation from Cuba's unfinished Juragua nuclear power plant, researchers said on Wednesday.
Called the Caribbean Radiation Early Warning System, the project will collect and analyse air samples from the Caribbean basin both before and after Cuba's only nuclear electricity generating plant is put into operation, scientists at Florida State University said.
Some Florida politicians have expressed concerns that the Juragua plant, originally designed to 1980s Russian safety standards, could present a radiation threat to Florida if it were completed.
Construction of two nuclear reactors at Juragua, about 175 miles (280 km) from the Florida Keys, was suspended in 1992 following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Both the Cuban and Russian governments have said they are committed to finishing the project. Completing the plant would take about $800 million and does not look likely in the near future.
Monitoring stations in St. Petersburg, Miami, the Florida Keys and at two or three other locations around the Gulf of Mexico will gather air samples to establish standards before the Juragua plant is put into operation.
The St. Petersburg station is already operating and others will be soon, FSU researchers said.
``They are giant vacuum cleaners that suck air through filters. The filters are then shipped to us for testing,'' FSU nuclear physicist Samuel Tabor said.
FSU nuclear physicists, working with Pacific-Sierra Research Corp, of Santa Monica, California, will use sophisticated gamma ray spectrometers to measure radioisotopes in the air in the Caribbean region, Tabor said.
Similar equipment detected low levels of radiation in Tallahassee, Florida from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the Ukraine in 1986, Tabor said.
Although FSU said air samples would be collected before the reactor ``goes online in December 2000,'' there was no recent evidence that Cuba had either the financing or outside technical assistance to complete the plant.
A 1992 report from the U.S. General Accounting Office said there was evidence of poor construction at the plant, citing testimony of former Juragua workers who raised concerns about shoddy installation of cooling pipes, bad welds and improper storage of equipment at the seaside plant.
Caribbean winds likely would blow radiation leaks northward from Cuba to Florida, and possibly west to Texas and up the U.S. eastern seaboard to Washington, D.C., according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data.
The early-warning system will include not only the collection stations, but meteorological models to predict air currents, satellite hookups between the stations, and Internet connections to Pacific-Sierra, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and federal disaster planners.
FSU physics department chairman Kirby Kemper said the plant design is basically safe, but scientists were concerned about the construction delays and possible future cost-cutting as Cuba struggles to complete it.
``We want to know whether they're building this on the cheap,'' he said. ``We're concerned that routine things could go wrong.''
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