Negligence a factor in hydropower plant disaster that killed 75

Published 6 October 2009

The massive 17 August accident in Russia’s biggest hydroelectric power plant was the result of negligence by officials; these officials may now face charges over the disaster

Russia’s top industrial safety oversight official said Saturday that negligence was a major factor in a devastating accident at the country’s biggest hydroelectric power plant, and hinted that high-level officials could face trial over the disaster that killed 75 workers.

Outlining a report on the causes of the 17 August accident at the Sayano-Shushenskaya plant in southern Siberia, Rostekhnadzor director Nikolai Kutin described it in chilling detail. Part of an overstrained turbine unit weighing 1,500 tons snapped off its restraining bolts and sailed into the air, he said, unleashing flooding, short circuits and wreckage that crippled the plant and doomed dozens of workers in seconds.

While the direct causes were essentially technical, he said, bad decisions stretching years back set the stage for a catastrophe that could probably have been avoided.

Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports that the purpose of the 140-page report is not to establish guilt, Kutin stressed, but it lists six people it says were “conducive” to the accident. They include former state-controlled utility chief Anatoly Chubais, an influential figure the Kremlin has used as a lighting rod for public anger since he led a post-Soviet privatization campaign many Russians saw as criminally unfair. “Ours is a democratic state, so the courts determine who is to blame,” Kutin told a news conference.

The accident drowned helpless workers trapped in frigid water and sent some panicked residents downstream from the dam fleeing for high ground. It underlined worries about the crumbling infrastructure and careless management that hampers Russia’s recovery from decades of communism and cuts short the life expectancy of its citizens.

The report and Kutin’s account are likely to compound those concerns. The chain of events that led to the accident began hundreds of miles (kilometers) away in Bratsk, where a fire at another hydropower facility caused damage that prompted authorities to increase the burden on the Sayano-Shushenskaya, Kutin said. One of its 10 turbine-generator units, which had been idle, was switched on to compensate and soon strained past its limit.

After it came apart, the ruined unit acted as a powerful pump, swiftly flooding the area with water, and two other units continued to operate under water for more than minute, causing “massive short circuits,” he said. The plant was soon without power, crippling safety systems.

The bolts that failed to hold the turbine-generator unit in place were badly worn before the accident, and it had been vibrating more than it should have been weeks earlier — and then even more dangerously in the hours before the accident, Kutin said. He said Chubais — who headed the utility monopoly RAO UES for a decade and engineered its breakup into regional power companies — approved an order commissioning the station in 2000, despite documented problems and what the report called the lack of “an adequate evaluation of its current safety conditions.”

It was unclear why the plant was commissioned years after it began operating in the 1970s.

The report is likely to add to public animus against Chubais, who has been in and out of influential posts since the 1990s and now heads Russia’s drive to develop nanotechnology. Chubais survived an apparent assassination attempt in 2005, and his well-established role as a scapegoat has led to the saying that “Chubais is to blame for everything.”

The fallout is unlikely to damage President Dmitry Medvedev or the powerful Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who critics say coasted on Russia’s income from high-priced oil exports during is eight-year presidency and did too little to modernize its economy.