17 dead, 57 missing in Russia power plant accident

MOSCOW — Harrowing details are emerging of the explosion and flood that devastated Russia’s largest hydroelectric plant, killing at least 17 people and leaving 57 missing.

More than 1,000 rescue workers searched the massive Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric plant in southern Siberia today for the missing, although there is little hope anyone could still be alive after three days in near-freezing waters. The remaining water from the flooded turbine room was pumped out today and three bodies were found.

A powerful explosion Monday blew out walls and caused the power plant’s turbine room to flood. Three of the plant’s 10 turbines were reportedly destroyed and three others damaged. The cause of the accident is unclear but officials cited a faulty turbine and a rise of pressure in the pipes as possible triggers.

The first victims of the accident were buried today in the nearby town of Cheryomushki, which has been deeply shaken because whole families worked at the plant.

Nikolai Shchip, covered head-to-toe in oil from a destroyed turbine, was blown away by the bursting water into the Yenisei River, but somehow made it to the shore, according to the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets.

Shchip’s 28-year-old son, Roman, never got out of the engine room. Roman’s pregnant wife Yelena was rushed to hospital once she heard about the accident and gave birth to a daughter, the newspaper said.

Another worker, Alexander Podkopayev, spent 15 agonizing hours in icy water at a flooded section of the plant, surviving thanks to a 4-inch air space under the ceiling, according to the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper.

Authorities acknowledged days ago that the people who are still missing are most likely dead.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ordered today that critical parts of Russia’s aging infrastructure be checked and upgraded.

“The tragic event at Sayano-Shushenskaya has clearly shown how much we need to do to ensure safety of hydropower facilities,” Putin told a Cabinet session. “We need to conduct a thorough check of all strategic and vital parts of infrastructure and work out a plan for their regular upgrade.”

He also emphasized the necessity of observing industrial safety standards.

“In our country … discipline in dealing with technology is very low,” he said.

The crippled power station has been shut down since the accident and could be out of service for a significant time. Repairs are estimated to take from two to four years.

The plant’s owner said today, however, that three undamaged turbines may be switched on next year.

The accident prompted new warnings about increasing risks posed by Russia’s aging infrastructure.

The accident “exposed the fairly fragile state of key parts of the infrastructure,” said Chris Weafer, chief strategist at the UralSib investment bank. “Time and time again in Russia it does take an accident to spur the government into taking some actions in terms of improving safety or regulations.”

Columnist Sergei Leskov wrote in the Izvestia paper that failure to modernize the nation’s crumbling Soviet-built infrastructure threatens the nation’s security.

“Equipment and infrastructure are horrendously worn-out and neglected. An urge for modernization and support for high technology are no longer an issue of economic security — they are badly needed for the survival of Russian citizens,” he wrote.

Sayano-Shushenskaya is Russia’s largest power plant, providing 10 percent of Siberia’s energy needs, and an important energy supplier for Siberian metallurgy.

The accident caused power shortages in several towns and major factories, but by Wednesday power was restored with the help of rerouted supplies.

Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko said it would cost $1.2 billion to rebuild the turbine room.

Oleg Deripaska, director general of aluminum producer Rusal, toured the damaged plant Wednesday and talked with Russia’s energy ministry and plant owner RusHydro about securing energy supplies during the repairs.

More than 70 percent of all the energy from the hydroelectric plant goes to four Rusal smelters, which are believed to be the company’s most efficient plants. Rusal is the world’s largest aluminum producer.

The accident produced an oil slick that has reportedly stretched over 80 miles (130 kilometers) down the Yenisei.

Alexei Knizhnikov of the WWF’s Moscow office told the AP that the damage is still hard to estimate due to “sometimes conflicting information.” He said that tons of fish might have died.

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