The Yenisei River runs 5,494 km (3,534 mi) northwards from Mongolia to the Arctic Ocean, dividing west from east Siberia. Rushing off the Hangayn Mountains, it is already a mighty force of nature by the time it enters the Russian region of Khakassia; and since 1978 it has driven Russia’s biggest hydroelectric power station.
At Sayano-Shushenskaya, a 245 m (800 ft) high dam across the 1 km (0.6 mi) wide Yenisei dwarfs the massive RusHydro turbine hall at its downstream foot. The ten colossal turbines spun remorselessly to supply 25 per cent of Russia’s hydroelectricity and it was a model renewable energy resource. Then it exploded.
Three turbines simply ceased to exist. The explosion ripped the concrete roof off the hall as water from the Yenisei swamped what was left, drowning anyone left standing in a toxic flood of 40 tons of spilled transformer oil that later found its way into the river. It took several days even to be sure how many had died. By then, live outcry of the bereaved was magnified by local, regional, national and international alarm about the sequence of the disaster, some of it for shared reasons. The Sayano-Shushenskaya dam supplied 70 per cent of the power for the world’s biggest aluminum producer, RUSAL.
The loss of half a million tons of aluminum was only one of the associated economic disasters. Another was the huge oil slick on the Yenisei, heading towards the Arctic and decimating fish farms on which huge numbers of people depend. PCBs in the specialist oil threatened drinking water. On a different level, Russian utilities and hydro-reliant heavy industries took a hammering on stock exchanges round the world. And it still isn’t clear which came first – an explosion causing the flood, a flood causing the explosion, or a human error known only to one of the victims.
When: August 17 2009
Where: Yenisei River, Cheryomusbki, Khakassia, Russia
Death toll: 74 dead and one missing
You should know: Local feeling about the incident’s probable cause is best expressed by the ban imposed in Cheryomushki on strong alcoholic drinks.