Cuba shuts down nickel industry as Hurricane Irma approaches

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Cuba has begun to shut down its nickel industry in preparation for Hurricane Irma, state-run television said on Thursday.

One of two processing plants, the state-owned Ernesto Che Guevara, was closed, and the second, a joint venture with Canadian miner Sherritt International Corporation, was operating at minimum capacity and was set to close as conditions warrant, the report said.

The industry, one of Cuba’s most important, is located in eastern Holguin province at Moa, a town near a flood-prone coast.

“We are continuing to monitor the situation and will be starting to shut down operations until the storm passes,” Sherritt spokesperson Joe Racanelli said in an email.

Irma plowed past the Dominican Republic toward Haiti on Thursday after devastating a string of Caribbean islands and killing at least 10 people as one of the most powerful Atlantic storms in a century.

Irma is expected to track off Cuba’s northern coast from the eastern tip of the island through central Ciego de Avila province on Friday and Saturday, before heading north toward Florida as a powerful CarribeanCaribbeanCategory 4 storm.

The monster storm is not forecast to hit the island, but its strength and breadth mean authorities are expecting storm surges, heavy rain and winds.

Eastern Cuba and most of central Cuba are under a state of emergency which includes evacuations and securing economic entities.

Cuba plans to produce 54,500 tonnes of nickel and cobalt sulfides this year.

The country was ranked 10th in world nickel production in 2016 and sixth in cobalt.

Nickel is essential in the production of stainless steel and other corrosion-resistant alloys. Cobalt is critical in production of super alloys used for such products as aircraft engines.

Cuban nickel is considered to be Class II with an average 90 percent nickel content.

Cuba exports to China, Europe and Canada.

By Marc Frank

(Reporting by Marc Frank; Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta; Editing by Bernadette Baum)