Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Dam Disaster Seen Opening New Era of ‘Technogenic’ Disasters in Russia

Paul Goble

Vienna, August 18 – The deadly disaster at the Sayano-Shushensk dam in Khakassia, the fifth largest hydro-electric facility in the world, occurred because officials sought to generate more electricity than the dam was designed to produce and because Moscow has ignored repeated warnings about such shortcomings or invest in the repair of such critical infrastructure.
As a result, Dmitry Verkhoturov, a Russian commentator who specializes on environmental questions, says that there is a very real danger that his country is entering into “a period of serious technogenic accidents as has been predicted” since the start of this decade and even earlier (www.apn.ru/opinions/comments21863.htm#comments).
Both the impact of the accident in terms of lives and lost production as well as the accident’s proximate cause are still to be determined, Verkhoturov notes. The number of those killed is rising, with more than 60 people still missing, and “many major enterprises are without power,” including energy-intensive aluminum factors in Sayan, Khakassia, and Krasnoyarsk.
Sergey Shoygu, Russia’s emergency situation minister, says that it will take some time to determine exactly what happened and why and an even longer time, one measured “in months and most likely even in years” to repair the hydro-electric facility and bring its power production back on line.
But if the specifics remain to be determined, the general causes do not, Verkhoturov suggests. In June and July, RusHydro which operated the facility was using higher water levels in order to produce “record” amounts of electricity, some 105 million kilowatts every day, the highest output in “the entire 30 years” of the dam’s existence.
And in an eerie echo of the Chernobyl atomic power disaster, Russian officials at the dam took pride in the fact that they did not employ any local people, as if that provided a guarantee the dam would be safe. “We have no Tuvans and Khakass,” the deputy director of the hydro-station said in September 2008.
The pursuit of ever greater power output, regardless of what the station was designed for, and the arrogant self-confidence of the operators that the dam would operate regardless of what they did because they were keeping non-Russians away from the controls are the real causes of this disaster.
Unfortunately, as Verkhoturov points out, this is unlikely to be the last disaster because similar problems are to be found at other Russian power stations. But he concludes with the hope that perhaps this accident because of its enormous impact will convince the Russian government to take at least two steps away from these looming disasters.
On the one hand, he says, Moscow needs to “conduct unannounced [and independent] inspections of the state of all major reservoirs” and dams in order to identify problems before they can lead to accidents like this one. And on the other, the Russian government needs to revisit its backing of RusHydro’s plans to build even more such dams in the future.
Over the last few years, Verkhoturov notes, RusHydro has been proposing “one such project after another,” arguing apparently convincingly as far as Moscow is concerned that everything about these plans is wonderful, given Russia’s need for more electricity and despite the objections of local people who would be flooded out.

No comments: