Cuba hopes to keep nickel output above 60,000 tonnes
* Two processing plants have 61,700 tonne plan
* Industry struggles with aging capacity
* Nickel a key Cuban export
By Marc Frank
HAVANA, March 26 (Reuters) - The Cuban nickel industry plans to produce around 62,000 tonnes of unrefined nickel plus cobalt in 2013, according to local and foreign company reports, following the closing of one of three processing plants last year.
The provincial radio station of Eastern Holguin, Radio Angulo, reported on Monday evening that the Cubaniquel-owned Ernesto Che Guevara plant in Moa, after experiencing production problems over the last few years, was now running up to speed.
The station quoted the plant's manager, Rogelio Polanco Fuentes, as stating, "the plant is in condition to meet this year's plan of 23,700 tonnes."
Canadian mining company Sherritt International, a joint venture partner with Cubaniquel in the only other open plant, the Pedro Soto Alba, also in Moa, recently reported 2012 output as 38,054 tonnes and said it expected a similar performance in 2013.
State monopoly Cubaniquel and Sherritt are also partners in a Canadian refinery where output from the Pedro Soto Alba plant is shipped, and after refining is marketed by yet another venture between them.
China and Europe also purchase Cuban nickel products, the country's most important exports and one of its top foreign exchange earners after technical services and tourism.
Cuba produced 69,700 tonnes of unrefined nickel plus cobalt in 2010, the last official figures available, after averaging around 74,000 tonnes during much of the past decade.
Cuba closed the oldest of its plants, the René Ramos Latourt in Nicaro, Holguin, last December.
The plant had been producing only a few thousand tonnes of unrefined nickel plus cobalt in recent years as the government struggled to keep it open and figure out what to do with Nicaro's 15,000 residents.
A joint venture ferronickel plant under construction in Moa with Venezuela is scheduled to open by 2014.
Cuba has valued the ferronickel project at $700 million and said annual processing would amount to 68,000 tonnes of ferronickel (21,000 tonnes nickel).
The Caribbean island is one of the world's largest nickel producers and supplies 10 percent of the world's cobalt, according to the Basic Industry Ministry.
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.
Ferronickel is an iron-nickel combination mostly used in steel making.
Cuban nickel is considered to be Class II with an average 90 percent nickel content.
Cuba's National Minerals Resource Center reported that eastern Holguin province had around one-third of the world's known reserves.
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