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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Dam Buck Stops Nowhere

The report issued by the Federal Service for Environmental, Technological and Atomic Inspection on the cause of the Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric plant accident is chock full of senseless data designed to divert attention away from the core issues. In plain English, the report’s findings read as follows:

Following repairs, an unbalanced GA-2 turbine unit was labeled as “satisfactory” and installed at the plant in March. The GA-2 unit reached the maximum allowable level of vibration from the moment it began operation, with the vibrations increasing fourfold by August. For this reason, an effort was made not to use the GA-2 unit at all. But a fire at the Bratsk hydroelectric plant on the evening of Aug. 16 prompted dispatchers to increase demand on the Sayano-Shushenskaya facility.

The GA-2 unit was brought on line at 11:05 p.m. and operated for exactly nine hours and nine minutes before the disaster occurred. During those hours, the GA-2 lost power three times, and the turbine exceeded the safe vibration level six times. But with stubborn perseverance, the unit was repeatedly turned back on. At 8 a.m., 13 minutes before the accident, a tremor was felt at the station, and at 8:05 a.m., gauges indicated malfunctions. An engineer, L.M. Misyukevich, reduced power, but the GA-2 continued working. If Misyukevich had shut the upper water gate to the station at that moment, the tragedy would have been averted. At 8:13 a.m., the lid of the GA-2 unit tore off. Of the 49 bolts that were supposed to be holding the unit in place, 41 showed signs of “fatigue fracture,” six were missing and only two were normal. Plant directors fled the premises, including the head of the safety department and the civil defense chief.

The conclusion drawn from all of this? Former UES CEO Anatoly Chubais was at fault.

Several grave conclusions must be drawn from this report. First, the primary cause of the tragedy was the complete deterioration of the country’s technical infrastructure. Even in Soviet times, only a handful of people possessed the specialized knowledge and skills required to balance those kinds of turbines. Those people have since died.

Second, the disaster was not caused by a bizarre confluence of circumstances but the lack of technical discipline prevailing at the plant.

Third, Russia’s power system — including hydroelectric power — is supervised by Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin. Officials under the patronage of the siloviki typically consider themselves immune to punishment, and although I cannot be absolutely certain that that factor led to the disaster, it definitely played a role. Fourth, the degree of impunity enjoyed by the siloviki and their proteges is mind-boggling. Those people can hire a maintenance firm with close ties to the plant’s owners, put a “repaired” but malfunctioning turbine unit into operation, report that rusted bolts are in “satisfactory” condition, stubbornly start and restart a failing unit despite tremors shaking the building and gauges warning of a malfunction, hightail it out of the place when the unit finally ruptures — and blame it all on Chubais.

But what I find most shocking of all is how badly Russia’s technological infrastructure has degenerated and the government’s overriding instinct for self-preservation and denial. We have entered a period of technological catastrophes, and yet the government is unable to establish who is responsible — only who is an enemy. The report’s chief author, Nikolai Kutin, initially said the catastrophe might have been a terrorist act. But later, Chubais, not terrorists, was blamed. The next version will probably peg the CIA as the culprit.

Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.