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64 Workers Feared Dead In Russian Plant Accident

Tue, 08/18/2009 - 7:10am

NATALIYA VASILYEVA Associated Press Writer - August 18, 2009

MOSCOW (AP) — Divers scoured the swirling waters and cavernous rooms of Russia's largest hydroelectric plant on Tuesday but the plant's owner said it was doubtful that any of the 64 workers missing after an accident would be found alive.

The accident Monday, which killed 12 other workers, shut down the massive Sayano-Shushenskaya power plant in southern Siberia and left several towns and major factories without electricity. The plant provides 10 percent of Siberia's energy needs, according to Russian media reports.

Two workers were found alive Monday in niches inside the flooded structure, RusHydro acting chief Vasily Zubakin was quoted as saying, but hope was fading for the 64 still missing.

"With every hour, there is less and less chance left that we will find somebody alive," RusHydro spokesman Yevgeny Druzyaka told The Associated Press.

Federal investigators said an explosion destroyed walls and the ceiling in an engine room where turbines are located and caused the room to flood. One of the plant's 10 turbines was destroyed, two were partly destroyed and three others were damaged, officials said.

The plant's dam, a towering structure that stretches a kilometer (more than half a mile) across the Yenisei River, was not damaged and towns downstream were not in danger, Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu said.

Regional Gov. Viktor Zimin refuted allegations that rescue teams had heard knocking sounds from inside the plant's structure, saying the dam's thick concrete walls would muffle any sounds from inside.

Former plant director Alexander Toloshinov, however, said some workers trapped in the flooded control room could have survived by finding a corner with some air left.

Three groups of divers were searching for the missing workers both inside the flooded rooms and in the river outside, Shoigu said in televised comments, adding that the workers were now believed to have drowned or been crushed by debris from the explosion.

The accident also produced an oil slick that by Tuesday stretched over 50 miles (80 kilometers) down the Yenisei. Crews were struggling to stop it but so far had not.

Supplies from other power plants were being rerouted Tuesday to help cover the region's shortfall but it was unclear how long other power plants would be able to keep making up for the energy shortage.

RusHydro said a faulty turbine at the plant, which began operating in 1978, was likely to blame. Investigators believe the accident occurred after a defective lid of one turbine was torn off during repair work, Vishnyakova, the RusHydro spokeswoman, told the AP.

Shoigu, however, said later that was merely one of several theories about why the accident occurred, Russian news agencies reported.

RusHydro said replacing the damaged equipment at the plant may take up to two years but the undamaged turbines could be put back into operation in a month.

Shoigu said the repairs would be difficult.

"We're probably talking about years rather than months to restore three of the 10 turbines," he said on state-run television.

More than 70 percent of all energy from the Sayano-Shushenskaya goes to four Siberian smelters of Rusal, the world's largest aluminum producer. Rusal reported Monday that it was operating as usual with smelters being powered from other plants.

Analysts said the lack of energy from the Sayano-Shushenskaya did not pose immediate risks for Rusal, but could seriously impede its development if the metals market picks up next year.

Aging infrastructure has long been regarded as a key obstacle to Russia's development.

Analysts have warned that Russia needs to boost its power production significantly to meet the growing demand of industrial producers or it would face regular power shortages. Monday's accident put Russia's plans to increase power capacity in jeopardy.

RusHydro said each bereaved family would receive 1 million rubles ($31,300) in compensation for their loss. The 12 dead workers are to be buried on Wednesday and Thursday.

Trading in RusHydro's shares at two Russian stock exchanges remained halted on Tuesday although the company said it could resume on Wednesday.

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