Vladimir Putin ordered a nation-wide infrastructure inspection after the event of the dam failure, and the causes of the failure will be released in a couple months when the report is completed. However, it is known that the cause of the damage is from a large amount of river water that flooded the turbine room.
Pictures of the original dam. (this page is in Russian... if you know the language, feel free to offer some enlightenment!)
This dam is roughly the same height as the Hoover Dam on the border of Nevada and Arizona (about 25 meters taller, actually), but the length is almost 700 meters (~2100 ft) longer. If you've ever seen the Hoover Dam, you know it's huge. This Russian dam is monstrous. The Sayano-Shushenskaya Dam provides an incredible 6.4 GigaWatts of electrical power whereas Hoover only puts out 2.1 GigaWatts. This is still an astonishing amount of power from a renewable source, but to imagine something with 3 times the capacity is simply mind blowing. The Sayano-Shushenskaya Dam was constructed nearly 40 years after the Hoover Dam, and I must assume the technology used has progressed reflectively; that being said, I don't even want to think of the construction cost. I'd like to see a payback analysis on this little project!
From the Wikipedia article, it looks like this isn't the first "accident" since it was built, albeit this is by far the largest. Other issues include a turbine flooding before the dam was finished, along with a couple natural flood events that damaged parts of the dam related to the spillway. Some people may write this incident off to stereotypical Russian construction, and others yet to this particular construction given it's previous issues. I have to believe with something this large, with the risk of what has to be hundreds of thousands of lives, that it truly was some unforeseen mishap. Maybe it was operator error or something similar... You have to be careful when designing and building something of this caliber. To avoid doing so would be utterly irresponsible.
All I can say is that they're lucky the integrity of the dam wasn't compromised. Though this will most likely have a high price both financially and environmentally (and in the cost of lives), it could have been much worse if the water reservoir behind the dam broke lose.
What do you think caused the catastrophe?
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