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Russia’s longest quarantine How ‘Rosatom’ is keeping its key nuclear power plant workers in isolation during the coronavirus pandemic
Russia’s government-owned atomic energy corporation, Rosatom, has been keeping key employees from its nuclear power plants in isolation during the coronavirus pandemic, reports the investigative news outlet Proekt. In particular, employees in charge of the control panel blocks and all technological aspects of these power stations have been isolated. Rosatom declared these people “critically important” workers, since the power units of these stations can’t function without them, and because replacing them is very difficult: in order to work in a nuclear control room you need to obtain a license and pass an exam. Russia has 11 nuclear power plants, which, according to Proekt’s calculations, employ a little more than 1,000 control room operators. Presumably all of them were sent into quarantine: Rosatom announced the decision to isolate “all workers who ensure the continuity of production processes and work in nuclear facilities” in the spring.
Control panel operators were sent to Rosatom sanatoriums — then they were banned from leaving, under threat of losing their jobs. The company began taking the nuclear engineers who spoke with Proekt to various sanatoriums at the beginning of April. According to the publication’s source from the Kursk Nuclear Power Plant, they were given rooms in pairs and fed “reasonably well,” but the internet at the sanatorium wasn’t working (the employees could only contact their families by phone). They were banned from going for walks more than 100 meters from the building, and were taken to work by bus. Proekt’s source from the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant said that once his colleagues left the sanatorium for a walk: they were quickly returned and threatened with dismissal. Other control room employees also said that disgruntled workers were threatened with either dismissal or penalties, such as lower salaries or potential problems with recertification.
Isolation was supposed to protect control room workers from the coronavirus, but they got sick anyway. A source from the Kursk Nuclear Power Plant told Proekt that six of his colleagues contracted the coronavirus, as well as five staff members at the sanatorium. “The percentage of patients here is higher than among the free workers at the power plant,” he said. Proekt’s source at the Leningrad Power Plant came down with the virus himself. Management asked him to leave the sanatorium quickly, despite the fact that when they were convincing him to go into isolation, they told him that this was also to prevent the spread of the infection to his family. The head of Rosatom’s communications department, Andrey Cheremisinov, stated that there are no coronavirus patients among control room staff members at the moment.
A vote “on approving the package of amendments to the constitution” was organized for the isolated nuclear engineers. Isolated workers from the Kursk Nuclear Power Plant were issued voting certificates with QR codes. Formally, these are meant to certify that a person has voted and therefore qualifies for a souvenir. Each certificate has the name of a particular employee, as well as proof that they have already participated in a vote “on approving the package of amendments to the constitution” — the implication being that the person voted in favor of the constitutional changes. Control room employees speculated that Rosatom’s leadership was monitoring voter turnout with the help of these certificates (both Meduza and other media outlets have written about QR codes being used for this purpose).
The nuclear engineers said that their isolation is set to continue for two to three more weeks. Some of them are heading into their third month of lockdown. When Russia began lifting restrictions at the beginning of May, some of the nuclear power plants’ managers allowed their control room employees to take turns going home. Rosatom also paid each isolated worker 30,000 rubles ($427.50). At the end of June, some of the nuclear engineers were released from the sanatoriums, but control room employees from the Leningrad, Smolensk, and Kursk nuclear power plants remained in isolation. Proekt calls this Russia’s longest quarantine. “Everyone is fed up with this ‘comfortable’ imprisonment. And most importantly, the prospect of release is nowhere in sight,” one of the employees at the Leningrad Power Plant told Proekt.
The quarantine for Rosatom employees is illegal, according to labor law expert Nikolai Zboroshenko. Upon arrival at the sanatorium, nuclear engineers signed a consent for isolation, but Zboroshenko maintains that such documents are legally void, and even with these consent forms in place, an employer has no right to restrict its personnel’s freedom. In turn, the head of Rosatom’s communications department, Andrey Cheremisinov, maintained that both the employees and their families are understanding of the situation: “Do you think that we are keeping them [in sanatoriums] in chains? They are going to these sanatoriums aware of their responsibilities.”
Translation by Eilish Hart
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