(April 27, 2011) In the world of engineering, standards are the foundation on which everything else rests. An investigation following a catastrophic explosion at Russia’s largest hydropower station in the summer of 2009 revealed poor management and technical flaws to be at the root of the dam’s failure. A repaired turbine almost at the end of its life span, taken offline again because it still didn’t work, was forced back into service in an emergency: a move that would cost 75 people their lives. This Popular Mechanics investigation asks whether the United States, a country with hundreds of hydro plants in operation, might also be at risk of a Russian-style dam disaster. U.S. experts say not likely: the two countries are separated philosophically when it comes to safety and human life.
Investigating Russia’s Biggest Dam Explosion: What Went Wrong
By Joe P. Hasler for Popular Mechanics
Last August, a major failure occurred at Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric dam in Russia. 75 people were killed, many were injured and 40 tons of oil were spilled in the Yenisei river. With nearly 100 gigawatts of installed electric dams in the United States, experts wonder, could it happen here? PM investigates.
Just before 8 am on Aug. 17, 2009, workers on the morning shift stepped off a clattering Soviet-era tram and made their way past security and into position at the Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric power plant in south-central Siberia. In the 950-foot-long turbine hall, custodians mopped the stone floors and supervisors handed out assignments. On the roof, a technician began installing a new ventilation system. Above him soared a concave dam 80 stories high and more than half a mile wide at the crest. When operating at full capacity, the plant’s 10 interior penstocks funneled water from the reservoir behind the concrete barrier to the hall below him, where it tore past the blades of 10 turbines, spinning them with tremendous force before being flushed out of the hydro plant and down the Yenisei River.
Completed in 1978, the Soviet-era hydro station is Russia’s largest, with enough output to power a city of 3.8 million. It was undergoing extensive repairs and upgrades that morning, so more workers were in the hall than usual: 52 on the main floor and another 63 down in the bowels of the plant. Nine of the 10 turbines were operating at full capacity–including the troublesome Turbine 2, which had been offline but was pressed back into service the previous night when electricity production dropped because of a fire at the Bratsk power station, 500 miles to the northeast. A few minutes into his shift, the technician felt the roof begin to vibrate. The vibrations grew louder and gradually turned into a thunderous roar. Alarmed, he scrambled off the roof.
At 8:13 am, two massive explosions rocked the hall. Security guard Aleksandr Kataytsev told English-language news station RT that he was one level below the turbine hall when he heard “a loud thump, then another one, like an explosion, and then the room went pitch-black.”