Ciudad Nuclear: Exploring Cuba’s Half-Abandoned ‘Nuclear City’

Last year I wrote a piece about an unfinished nuclear power plant in Cuba – a massive concrete thing, abandoned on the Caribbean coast. The site was being built with Soviet money, and much like other NPPs behind the Iron Curtain the construction of this facility was accompanied by the planning of a new city to house workers. The Chernobyl reactors in Ukraine had the worker city at Pripyat; the Lithuanian reactor at Visaginas, likewise, had a model socialist city raised up almost overnight in its shadow; and here at Juragua in Cuba, the Soviets built ‘Ciudad Nuclear’: in English, simply, ‘Nuclear City.’

Unlike its sister sites however, the Cuban NPP was never completed – and so the city built to house its staff was left in limbo, half finished, only part occupied, an unsustainable cluster of concrete dwellings sat forlorn on the edge of the Caribbean.

Cuba's Nuclear City - 1-DR

Cuba's Nuclear City - 6-DR I made the journey down to Juragua with a few friends, in a car we’d hired in Havana. It took a few hours to get there, over on the south side of the island – so we set up camp the night before, staying in a casa by the coast. On the day of our intended visit to the power station, we made a drive past the site in the morning. We saw guards all over the plant, so decided to visit Ciudad Nuclear while we came up with a plan for accessing the power station itself.

Ciudad Nuclear is a funny place. I want to call it a ‘ghost town,’ but that wouldn’t be accurate. The handful of citizens who remain here are, for the most part, commuters. They’ll drive to work in Cienfuegos, or nearby Juragua for example, a larger city with a busy port and industrial sector. Of course, that only works for those who own their own transport – and not a lot of Cubans do. The result is that Ciudad Nuclear, an unfinished, out-of-the-way conurbation with little going on in terms of entertainment or employment, is doomed to a slow depopulation.

Cuba's Nuclear City - 4-DR

Most of the buildings seemed to be uninhabited; many of them were never finished. Inside one, I found a wall decorated with the painted words of Cuba’s beloved revolutionary poet, José Martí. It read:

“Cuba no anda de pedigueña
por el mundo, anda de hermana
Al salvarse, salva América
no le fallará, porque ella
no le falla a América.”

My Spanish is pretty limited, and Google Translate isn’t much better when it comes to poetry; but a loose translation gives: “Cuba is not a beggar in the world, go sister to save, save. America will not let you, because she serves America.”

Cuba's Nuclear City - 2-DR

Cuba's Nuclear City - 3-DR Some of the buildings around the city stood near to collapse. I took a look inside a few of them, though there wasn’t a lot to see. The risk-reward ratio (danger of collapse vs. the chance of finding anything interesting inside these bare shells) wasn’t weighted in my favour, and so for the most part when I saw ‘Derrumbe’ – ‘Collapse’ – written across a building, I kept away.

In the centre there were concrete towers and bare apartment blocks, some with socialist slogans scrawled across their naked bricks. ‘Socialismo o Muerte,’ read the words on one unfinished block of flats.

Socialism or Death.

Cuba's Nuclear City - 8-DR

I took a look inside that last building – found stairs, in fact, leading all the way up to the highest floor. There was nothing but concrete all the way up. Reaching the top, I walked out of the stairwell onto an open-plan level that fell abruptly away at the edges; no windows, no handrail, just a sudden drop of some 14 floors to the ground below. Just then a flapping sound caught my attention and I turned, to see a large black bird take off from where it had been perched. Later I’d be told it was a vulture.

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Finally, I managed to make it up onto the roof itself. I had to climb through a hatch above the stairs, catching hold of the ledge above me to pull myself up, slowly, and onto the very top of the building… as I dangled over the yawning stairwell, I tried not to look down.

It was worth the effort, though. Stood up there in the blasting Caribbean sun, looking out on the sea to one side – the jungle on the other. Below me, the empty streets and unfinished buildings of Ciudad Nuclear fanned out in grids and rows, a model city that never quite made it out of the laboratory. Meanwhile along the coast, rising as a concrete dome that looked somewhere between an observatory and a mosque, stood the shell of the Juragua Nuclear Power Plant.

Cuba's Nuclear City - 18-DR

[If you want to know more about Ciudad Nuclear, you can read an article I wrote about the city for Foreign Affairs. Alternatively, check out my blog post on Cuba’s Unfinished Nuclear Power Station.]


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