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Illegal Cuban refugee count up

Federal officials acknowledged Wednesday that the number of illegal immigrants from Cuba has soared recently, with visitors overstaying their passes and refugees crossing on boats, rafts and even hunks of plastic foam. American officials also told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee they were concerned about reports of safety violations at a Soviet-built nuclear power plant in Cuba.

Thus far, 890 refugees have crossed by sea in 1991, up from 467 in all of last year, officials said. They said more than 10,000 overstayed visitor passes last year, about a third of those who were issued such documents.

Immigration Commissioner Gene McNary told the lawmakers he suspected Cuban dictator Fidel Castro might try to unload irksome human rights activists and criminals on the United States before the Pan Am Games in Havana in August.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Michael Kozak said eased emigration rules in Havana appear designed to give Castro hard currency. The travelers are being charged excessive fees, he said.

On another issue, Kozak said American officials are concerned about charges made by Cuban defectors who worked at a Cuban nuclear power facility 150 miles from the Florida coast.

He said the reports represent the first serious safety questions raised in connection with the Soviet-built facility.

But Kozak said "it is not something people should panic about."

Kozak told the subcommittee that the Soviet Union has assured the United States that the power plant is different from the one that failed at Chernobyl in April 1986.

"The administration has the nuclear safety issue under active review, and has heard recent press reports of defectors alleging quality-control defects in the construction of the plant," Kozak said. "We are seeking to have our experts interview these individuals directly."

The panel later heard from Vladimir Cervera Cruz, described as the former head of quality assurance for the plant.

He said he found that 15 percent to 20 percent of the welds that he inspected at the plant were faulty. His remarks were translated into English by nuclear scholar Nils Diaz of the University of Florida.

The former plant official said the problems he found would make it impossible for the plant to be operated according to international safety standards.

He defected in Canada while en route to the Soviet Union with his Soviet-born wife. His wife, he said, continued on to the Soviet Union.

Rep. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., committee chairman, said concerns about the nuclear power plant should be raised in connection with proposals to aid the Soviet economy.

"The point should be made that it's an inappropriate use of Soviet resources... to build a power plant adverse to our interest," he said.