Leading article: Lessons from a Siberian disaster

Wednesday 19 August 2009 00:00
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The accident at Russia's largest hydro-electric power station, the Sayano-Shushenskaya plant in Siberia, has so far cost more than 70 lives. The pictures show utter devastation in the cavernous turbine hall. As much as one quarter of the electricity Russia generates by hydro-power has been knocked out. The authorities say repairs will take many months and the expense will run into billions of roubles.

This is an accident, in its way, that has the potential to be almost as devastating for Russia as the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl was for the Soviet Union. It is a huge blow to national pride. Sayano-Shushenskaya was a landmark Soviet project; when completed in 1978, the vast dam over the river Yenisei was hailed as fresh proof that the communist state could harness nature to its cause. Repairs will knock a large hole in Russia's budget, which is recovering only slowly from the effects of the global downturn and the slide in commodities prices last year.

But the accident – apparently caused by a pressure surge in pipes – is also a harbinger of something Russia's leaders have long feared: the inexorable degradation of the Soviet-era infrastructure. From power stations to ports and airports, to pipelines and railways, through city heating plants and the Moscow metro – almost everything is in urgent need of renovation.

And despite almost a decade of plenty, when export prices for its oil and gas soared, Russia has hardly begun to tackle even the basics. Nor was the problem mostly one of money; by and large the Russian state did not squander its windfalls. It saved prudently during the good years, even though unscrupulous individuals stashed billions of dollars abroad.

The problem was, and remains, one of organisation, political will, but above all expertise. A 20-year plan exists to bring Russia's infrastructure up to modern standards. But the scale of what is needed is forbidding and progress so far has been negligible. If anything good can come of the disaster at the Sayano-Shushenskaya power station, it may be to inject a sense of urgency into the renovation efforts that Russia should have made a national priority after the Soviet Union's demise 18 years ago.

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