Russian authorities were reportedly warned that Siberia’s massive Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric power plant had fallen into serious neglect and was unsafe in 1998, more than a decade before this week’s deadly accident.
The death toll rose to 64 yesterday as rescuers continued draining the turbine room and recovered 17 more bodies. Eleven workers were still missing from Monday’s accident, which has highlighted the dangers of Russia’s creaking infrastructure.
For years, the Kremlin was urged by independent experts and even its own ministries to invest some of its oil-and-gas billions to update Soviet-era infrastructure.
A lack of expertise, however, combined with government apathy, means that not only Russian power plants, but also dangerous roads, decaying utilities, aging transport fleets and creaking buildings continue to take victims as they fall further into disrepair.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who toured the crippled Siberian power plant on Friday, has acknowledged that Russia must plan for the regular upgrade of “vital parts of infrastructure.”
But Vladimir Tikhomirov, chief economist at the Moscow-based bank UralSib, said Russia had to spend big if it wanted to reverse the neglect of the stagnant 1990s.
“It’s about more than US$100 [billion] to US$200 billion if we’re talking about all infrastructure — and you can’t make it all in one year,” he said on Friday.
The latest statistics show that as little as 7.4 percent of all equipment in the power sector was replaced by 2007. Studies showed that half needed replacing and 15 percent was worn out beyond repair.
Russian Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko has said it would cost 40 billion rubles (US$1.2 billion) just to rebuild the damaged turbine room.
Putin on Friday urged the state-owned plant operator RusHydro to compensate the families of the dead at Sayano-Shushenskaya. RusHydro has already pledged to pay 1 million rubles to the families. Putin promised to match the company’s payouts with federal money.
The Emergency Situations Ministry — whose 1,000-strong search team kept up the search for those feared dead — warned back in 1998 that the dam had fallen into dangerous neglect, a report by the business daily Kommersant said.
The same ministry forecast in 2005 that decaying infrastructure would be the cause of most technological accidents in the coming years, saying more than 60 percent of Russia’s water pipes, sewage, heating and electricity networks needed urgent replacement.
Even Putin accepted in December that 80 percent of Russia’s heating network needed repairs — a critical issue for a nation with such severe winter weather.
Most signs of poor maintenance, however, fail to engage local Russian officials.
Ordinary Russians have endured thousands of low-profile gas explosions in homes, road accidents involving 30-year-old buses and frequent electricity blackouts.
Gas blasts in particular highlight the nation’s infrastructure problem. Many Russians in residential buildings that aren’t rigged for cooking gas use old, high-pressure canisters. Those frequently burst, killing anyone nearby and sometimes leveling buildings. The damage is compounded by buildings that are not structurally sound and overall poor fire-safety standards.
Short-circuits account for a significant number of fires, emergency officials say.
The global economic downturn has thwarted efforts to finance infrastructure upgrades, such as a now-postponed liberalization in energy sector prices that was supposed to allow privatized power plants to generate enough cash to pay for maintenance and new equipment.
Fearing popular discontent, Russian officials have kept energy costs low — but they might have to shift that strategy.
“The federal budget is not going to have the money to adequately invest in those companies’ operations program, so the cost will have to be passed on to the consumers — individuals or companies,” Tikhomirov said. “There’s no other way, otherwise we’ll be in for other technology-caused disasters.”
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