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Disaster at the Sayano-Shushensky power station – a man-made apocalypse

Yegor Zadereyev
24 August 2009

Today is Wednesday.  Two days ago, on Monday morning, there was one of the biggest man-made disasters in the short history of post-Soviet Russia.  Yes,yes!  The catastrophe happened in the morning.  The whole country doesn't live on Moscow time.  For thousands of people (and I mean thousands) the accident happened just after 8 a.m.  It was the end of the shift, the workers were checking the building and the generating units.  End of one shift, beginning of the next.

I have lived in Divnogorsk for almost 30 years.  It is a small town of about 30,000 inhabitants next to the Krasnoyarsk Hydroelectric Power Station.  This might come as a surprise to someone living in Central Russia.  The power station may be called Krasnoyarsk, but the town where the engineers live is Divnogorsk.  The industrial zone begins right outside the station and the town itself is 3 km away.  The Krasnoyarsk and Sayano-Shushensky power stations are giants bestriding and damming the Yenisei.  The pride of the Soviet Union.  In their time they were the biggest hydroelectric power stations in the world.

To say that the towns where the engineers live make their living by power generation is not saying much.  Every Divnogorsk schoolboy knows the diameter of the pipes through which the water drops on to the turbines, the capacity and the number of the generating units, the dates when each turbine came on stream, the names of the brigade leaders and the volume of concrete in the body of the dam.  Schoolchildren were even enrolled in the Pioneers in the turbine room.  This is why I, and most of the people who have grown up next to these giants, have a very clear idea of the dimensions and power of these installations.

But - the mightier the Colossus, the more powerful his fall.  I was more than surprised that the catastrophe was not at the top of the central news bulletins on Monday.  The lead items were a plane crash before the MAKS-2009 Airshow and some terrorist act.  The accident, which could put a whole Russian region in a very difficult situation, was further down the list.

There was almost continuous coverage in the local media,  but this gave rise to another problem.  At the beginning they couldn't resist the usual hype to increase sales.  They said things like 'the wall of the Sayano-Shushensky Power Station has collapsed'.  Well, actually the station doesn't have a wall, what it has is the body of the dam.  There's a wall in the turbine room, which was where the damage was.  But you can imagine what anyone would think who has seen the power station and knows what a concrete wall 240 metres high looks like.  The websites in the town were in complete chaos on Monday up until lunch time, so it's almost impossible to try and imagine what was going on at the site.

Inhabitants of towns near the disaster-stricken power station rushed to fill their cars and buy provisions, then started leaving town.  Petrol prices jumped to 40 roubles a litre.  Then the petrol ran out.  Mobile networks became overloaded and crashed, but this only added to the general panic.  Local leaders didn't know what to do.  Directors of hospitals and state institutions sent people home to get ready for possible evacuation.  Today my friend from Montreal, who had only just found out about the accident, rang her parents in Sayanogorsk (which will simply disappear if the dam is actually breached).  She told me that her mother still thinks that people are being evacuated and that there is still a risk the dam might burst.  But it's already Wednesday.

But putting emotions on one side and trying to look at things more calmly...  My comments so far have little to do with my scientific work or any part of my professional competence.  I am simply commenting as a local person, an observer of events and, actually, from a distance of several hundred kilometres.

Ongoing repairs were being carried out at the Sayano-Shushensky Power Station.  For what reason is not yet clear, but water poured into the turbine room, though 'poured' is hardly a description of what actually happened.  Water was roaring down a tunnel about the size of the Moscow metro tunnel and from a height of 150m.  It surged into the turbine room and smashed everything possible there.  There are already pictures of the damage on the internet - it's colossal.  The people manning the power station are in the turbine room and the adjoining facilities. There is still no information about what happened to them, but the conjectures are not good.

The station was virtually paralysed and ceased to function, so the sluices which let water through to the generating units were shut in an attempt to stop the flow.  But the power station can't stand idle and not let the water through, as this means levels in the reservoir will start rising and could burst over the top.  The overflow outlets were opened to prevent this happening.

Every power station has outflow systems.  They are used in the event of water levels rising because of spring floods or low-loading in the power station.  But there's another problem.  The Sayano-Shushensky outflow system has been a real headache for a long time.  Water falling from a height of 100m damages the bedrock foundation on which the dam is standing, so when a power station is under construction, a special reinforced concrete channel is built in to the place where the water drops.   But this channel regularly got damaged,  either because of design mistakes or because the system was overloaded.  This problem had been known about for a long time and construction of a by-pass tunnel had been started to prevent the bedrock foundation eroding. This tunnel would have channelled off excess water, by-passing the dam.  Construction was under way and completion was scheduled for 2010.

So what's the bottom line?  The power station is not producing electricity.  The water is discharging directly through the standard outflow system which also has its defects.  I don't think anyone can either assess or predict any results or how long the water can  go on discharging.  In order to reduce the outflow either the by-pass tunnel has to be put into operation (and it will be difficult to speed up the construction in emergency conditions) or the remaining generating units have to be activated.  There can obviously be no question of the station being fully repaired in the near future.  There is already talk of the time needed for complete repairs being no less than 4 years.

I have grave doubts as to whether part of the generating units can be started up within the next few months, although I could be quite wrong.  But whatever happens, the region's economy will experience considerable problems as a result of the almost complete disappearance of the source of cheap energy for the aluminium industry.  Energy tariffs are growing, which means prices for the end product will grow too and this branch of industry provides a living for a significant part of the region.  Social problems are a real possibility.  People living in towns who have gone through the stress of thinking they were about to be drowned may very well not want to go on living there.

This accident is already being compared with Chernobyl on the internet.  Which is quite right.  In the worst case scenario, if the dam is breached, then about 1 million people will be at risk, including the capital cities of 2 regions - Krasnoyarsk and Abakan.  Taking into consideration the outflow problems already described, it may not be a probability that the dam will burst, but it must be a possibility.

A thesis currently circulating in the internet is that this is the beginning of the collapse of Soviet-built infrastructure.  It's difficult to disagree.  But I wouldn't link the problems of worn out infrastructure with political regimes or forces that are in power.  'Our government does nothing' can be just as successfully reformulated as 'we are paying for past mistakes'.  After all, if one starts looking for faults, one can always unearth some errors in design or construction. For instance, when the Krasnoyarsk station was being constructed, the plan was that in winter the water would freeze 30 km after it left the station.  But the pool actually spreads over a distance of 200 km, so even in summer you can't bathe in the river in the town (too cold) and in the winter the Yenisei river steams.  High levels of humidity and frost - I invite anyone wishing to try their strength to come and see us in December.

Many of the technical mistakes or discrepancies are probably simply due to the fact that these construction projects were often breaking new ground, though mistakes made may not have been serious at the time.  Now for the first time we are encountering the problems of clearing up after serious accidents.  For that reason I am extremely surprised when I see accusations on the internet that the people who are trying urgently to deal with the obstructions and other problems at the station are not doing anything.  There are no prepared scenarios for situations like this.  No one really knows how the station will behave in a critical situation, though possibly this is just the situation for testing the level of Russia's scientific and technical development.  How quickly can we make more or less realistic calculations, estimates or recommendations, or mobilise resources?

At the moment, as a local resident with an understanding of the scale of these installations, but also their fragility, I can say that it feels like a pretty apocalyptic situation.  When I go to visit my mother in Divnogorsk, I bump along roads concreted at the time the power station was being built. I see the 5-storey buildings made of pre-fabricated panels, the forest paths overgrown with grass and the half twisted remains of metal constructions in the park which used to be called 'Siberian Globeflower'.  I understand that these are all physically the same age as the power station, but the fact the concrete in the station is hundreds of times stronger and the attention given to the equipment is hundreds of times greater doesn't stop Time in its tracks.

PS Moscow colleagues ask me to comment on suggestions that there might be people left alive inside the station.  Many of the rooms around the turbine room are currently under water.  Yesterday one man was pulled out of one of them, but he had been in an air bubble.  How he managed to survive 24 hours in water of 10 degrees, no one knows. 

I don't know, perhaps there are people still alive.  Rescuers are working round the clock.  Witnesses have said that the divers refuse to get out of the water, they are trying to get through to the blockages.   But it has to be that everything there has been pounded to a paste.  The spaces are huge and the constructions weigh many tonnes, so pumping out the water or getting through to them quickly is out of the question.  It all needs time.

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