Russia knew power plant was unsafe a decade ago

As the death toll rises to 66, the unexplained blast highlights the dangers of the country’s neglected and disintegrating infrastructure
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The Independent Online

Russian authorities were reportedly warned that Siberia's massive Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric power plant had fallen into serious neglect and was unsafe more than a decade before last week's deadly accident.

The death toll rose to 66 yesterday as rescuers continued to drain the dam's destroyed turbine room. They recovered 19 more bodies amid the twisted metal and concrete wreckage from Monday's unexplained explosion. Nine workers were still missing.

The blast has highlighted the dangers of Russia's creaking infrastructure. For years, the Kremlin was urged by independent experts and even by its own ministries to invest some of its oil and gas billions to update Soviet-era infrastructure. But a lack of expertise combined with government apathy means that Russian power plants, along with dangerous roads, decaying utilities, aging transport fleets and creaking buildings, continue to claim victims.

The Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, who toured the crippled plant on Friday, has acknowledged that Russia must plan for the regular upgrade of "vital parts of infrastructure".

The power plant, 2,100 miles east of Moscow, is the country's largest hydroelectric facility.

Russia's Emergency Situations Ministry warned in 1998 that the dam had fallen into dangerous neglect, according to the business daily Kommersant. The same ministry forecast in 2005 that decaying infrastructure would be the cause of most technological accidents in the coming years.

The global economic downturn has thwarted efforts to finance infrastructure upgrades, such as a now-postponed liberalisation in energy-sector prices that was supposed to help privatised power plants generate cash to pay for maintenance and equipment. Vladimir Tikhomirov, of the Moscow bank UralSib, said: "The federal budget is not going to have the money to invest in the companies' operations programme, so the cost will have to be passed on to the consumers. There's no other way, otherwise we'll be in for other technology-caused disasters."