Rosatom announces 100 coronavirus cases at Belarus nuclear plant

Control room The control room of a nuclear reactor. Credit: Getty Images

About 100 people at the construction site of a controversial nuclear power plant in Belarus have become infected with the coronavirus, the head of Rosatom, Russia’s nuclear corporation, has said in a new video address to the company’s employees.

The site of the plant, located in Grodno near the Lithuanian border, had previously been locked down in an effort to limit the virus’s spread. But a recent relaxation of distancing measures has led to an uptick in infections among the engineers and technicians working to bring the plant online, Alexei Likhachev, Rosatom’s CEO said.

Rosatom has overseen the construction of the plant, whose first VVER-1200 reactor is due to start producing electricity later this year, and Likhachev said the newly infected are a combination of local contractors and Rosatom engineers.

“The newly infected are not only our employees but also representatives of the Belarusian customer,” Likhachev said in his address. “Now we are facing the busiest season as in the coming weeks we are about to obtain a license and get ready for the physical launch. At the same time we should protect and take care of our staff as much as possible.”

A second reactor is scheduled to come online at the Belarusian plant by 2022.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Rosatom has struggled to minimize the spread of the infection among its nearly 250,000 employees, who are spread throughout 11 nuclear power plants and numerous nuclear science laboratories and waste reprocessing sites throughout the country.

Rosatom also has 36 power units at different stages of implementation in 12 countries around the world and is currently building seven new reactors for foreign customers: two each in Bangladesh, Belarus and India, plus one unit in Turkey.

In early April, Rosenergoatom, Rosatom’s utility subsidiary, took the extraordinary step of isolating nuclear workers onsite at the plants where they work, housing them in dormitories and dispensaries where their health could be monitored more closely. The corporation also beefed up security measures in Russia’s so-called “nuclear cities,” which house nuclear plants and research facilities and are typically inaccessible without special passes.

The rest of Rosatom’s employees were asked to work remotely from home and most of the corporation’s business trips were cancelled.

Remarkably, however, the corporation failed to halt construction projects like the ones in Belarus ­­­– though it later backtracked and isolated that site.

Meanwhile, Belarus’s cloistered dictatorship has come under criticism from the international community for its lackluster response to containing the virus.

Alexander Lukashenko, the country’s iron fisted strongman, has refused to implement social distancing measures, and on May 9, he shrugged off safety concerns to hold a massive military parade to mark Victory Day in Minsk.

The number of coronavirus cases in Belarus has soared, officially reaching more than 38,000 by May 6, though many analysts have suggested even that figure is an undercount.

Belarusian authorities have hailed the nuclear plant as a way for the country to wean itself off Russian natural gas supplies. But the alliance with Rosatom to build and operate the plant – and the generous multibillion dollar loans the corporation has offered to get it done – all but assure Minsk will remain entwined with Moscow for decades to come.

In total, Rosatom has reported that 485 of its employees have been infected with the new virus. In particular, Likhachev noted that 42 workers at the Smolensk nuclear power plant, located near the Russian border with Belarus, had taken ill after being exposed to the virus.

Nonetheless, Rosatom on May 18th announced it would be stepping down many of its virus restrictions and urging its employees back to work.

Likhachev said that this would not apply to employees who are over 65, who suffer from chronic medical conditions, women who are pregnant, or are mothers with multiple children.

But he was keen to emphasize that working conditions would not been what they were two months ago, before international lockdowns began.

“All that until recently seemed out of the ordinary – masks, gloves, antiseptics, social distancing – has now become the norm for the months ahead, part of corporate culture,” he said.