Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

See No Danger

The most important questions regarding the causes of the Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric plant tragedy have not been duly addressed by Russia’s leaders. But this should come as no surprise because if the public were to know the truth behind the disaster, this would deliver a strong blow to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s legitimacy and contradict his myth that Russia is “getting up off its knees.” That is why the authorities are channeling public discussion away from questions of cause and responsibility. Meanwhile, they are concentrating on the more politically comfortable issues of paying compensation to the victims’ relatives and giving free apartments to the children of the workers who died.

Specialists and local residents knew all too well that the hydroelectric plant had fundamental design and construction flaws from the first day of operations. In fact, there were three other serious accidents in 1979, 1985 and 1988. Following the most recent disaster on Aug. 17, which claimed the lives of 75 people, the main questions that should be asked are: Did the plant owners and managers enforce necessary safety measures and did they have adequate financial resources to do so?  

The Sayano-Shushenskaya plant stands on the balance sheet of RusHydro, a company in which the government holds a 61 percent share. This makes the government the majority owner of the plant. Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko is the chairman of the board of directors for RusHydro. It is his job to approve all of the company’s programs and financial plans, including the volume of funding allocated for the repair and maintenance of existing hydroelectric plants. In 2008, RusHydro paid 3.5 million rubles ($110,000) to the Siberian Electrical Power Scientific-Technical Research Center to conduct a safety review of the Sayano-Shushenskaya facility. Was that work performed? If so, what were the findings? Did RusHydro allocate funds to perform crucial repairs and maintenance? Was the plant’s initial construction delayed in order to correct flaws in the design of the drainage channel? The answers to these questions will shed a lot of light on the government’s and Shmatko’s responsibility for the accident that caused 75 deaths.

The standard excuse that the government and RusHydro did not have enough money for the plant’s repair and reconstruction is simply untrue. RusHydro is a highly profitable and prosperous company. The company has not only operated in the black in recent years, but its net profits have grown from 1.5 billion rubles ($47 million) in 2006 to 8.6 billion rubles ($270 million) in 2007 and 16.5 billion rubles ($516 million) in 2008. What’s more, the government had substantial reserves for funding emergency repairs at facilities such as Sayano-Shushenskaya that pose a direct and immediate danger to its employees.

Furthermore, RusHydro had the political support of the federal authorities, who approved a price hike on the electricity it produces by a record 31.3 percent in early 2009. The company also gave generous cash bonuses to its top directors and managers. In 2008, 13 members of the RusHydro board of directors received an average of 785,000 rubles ($25,000) in bonuses, and eight company executives received an average of 7.45 million rubles ($233,000) each — a combined total of 59.6 million rubles ($1.9 million). At the same time, RusHydro contributed only 6.5 million rubles ($203,000) to various charities in the Khakassia republic in 2008, less than each of its top executives received.

On top of that, RusHydro recently spent a nice sum on the remodeling of its Moscow corporate headquarters and splurged more than 1 billion rubles ($31.3 million) in 2008 to purchase a 5.8-hectare plot of land outside Moscow, where it plans to build a new office complex.

After the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion in 1986, most technicians and government officials responsible for the catastrophe were punished, and several officials received prison terms. This strong response led to increased safety at Soviet and Russian nuclear power plants. This may be one reason why there has been no subsequent nuclear tragedies in the country.

The disaster at Sayano-Shushenskaya was the largest of its kind in the world, and severe punishments should be meted out to all those responsible for it — including negligent plant managers, company owners, executives and government officials. Otherwise, the same type of accident will occur at other plants. A systemic lack of accountability in government only breeds more irresponsibility later. An independent commission should conduct an impartial investigation of all of the circumstances and factors contributing to the disaster, and the results of its findings should be made widely available to the public.

To his credit, President Dmitry Medvedev recently supported the idea of bringing criminal charges against those responsible for the tragedy. I hope our country’s leaders and top officials in the Prosecutor General’s Office have the integrity and willpower to follow through on Medvedev’s call. Those found criminally negligent for the Sayano-Shushenskaya tragedy —  including bureaucrats and business leaders with close ties to the Kremlin — need to be brought to justice.

Vladimir Ryzhkov, a State Duma deputy from 1993 to 2007, hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.