Nine employees of Telangana State Power Generation Corporation (TSGenco) are trapped inside the under-tunnel 900 (6 X 150) MW Srisailam Left Bank Power Station (SLBP) when fire broke out in the electric panel at around 10.30 pm on Thursday night (Aug 20 2020). As we write this, six bodies have been recovered, search is on for the remaining three persons.
There were 30 employees inside the powerhouse, located in Domalapenta of Amrabad mandal in Srisailam, when the accident took place. Six employees were rescued and brought out of the tunnel, 15 others managed to come out through the emergency exit route. However, nine others were trapped inside as thick smoke engulfed inside the tunnel, making it difficult for the rescue teams to reach the place.[i]
As per preliminary reports, there was a sudden spike in power generation, up to 180 MW and resulted in short circuit, causing fire. According to one report, the fire started in auxiliary voltage transformer, of the fourth unit of the power station. A TS GENCO employee, who was at the hydroelectric power plant when the fire started said that, “it seemed to have started in one of the panels, somewhere near the units 4, 5 and 6. At least ten people were working around that time. We immediately tried to control the fire using carbon dioxide fire extinguishing cylinders. Thick smoke had engulfed the entire area. The visibility was so poor because of smoke that we could not see the person standing next to us. We had no idea as to what was happening and later a few of us somehow managed to escape.”[ii]
The plant has two entrances and one exit. Smoke engulfed the entire stretch. By Friday morning, it started scattering outside. Deputy executive engineer Srinivas, assistant engineer Sundar and other junior engineers Fatima Begum, Sushma, Venkat Rao, Kiran and Rambabu and two other employees of Amara Raja’s service channel parner, a private engineering firm from Hyderabad, among those trapped inside.
Some visuals of the incident showed a series of explosions followed by heavy flames and smoke emanating from the station.[iii]
Nagarkurnool district (Telangana) fire officer Sri Das said, “People are feared trapped at different floors. We could not find them on the surface floor. It is very difficult to say how long this operation might last. We think, by late evening or tomorrow morning, we will have everything clear”.[iv]
The SLBP is on the Telangana side of the Srisailam reservoir on Krishna river, a joint irrigation project between Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. The power house was constructed in the huge tunnel under the Nallamala forests adjacent to the reservoir, which is presently brimming with heavy inflows into the river forcing the authorities to lift all the gates to discharge water.
Telangana power minister G Jagadeeshwar Reddy said that the fire erupted possibly due to short circuit in the electric panels of the power house and it spread to other parts of the power house. The TSGenco engineers tried tripping the unit, but did not succeed. They isolated the unit as another alternative. Fire extinguishers could not control the fire. The accident started in Unit 1 and four panel boards were damaged. It was reportedly followed by an explosion in unit 4 of the power station.[v]
“The project unit operates at multiple levels. Those in the control room are said to have managed to come out. Others at lower levels couldn’t come out because of the smoke. The current being switched off also hampered rescue and escape efforts,” said one official.[vi]
This is the first such accident at the plant, said Transco-Genco CMD Mr Prabhakar Rao. “Why it happened has to be investigated.”
World’s biggest fire related disaster at hydropower project A major fire mishap at Russia’s 6400 MW Sayano-Shushenskaya Hydro Power Plant in the morning on Aug 17, 2009 led to death of 75 persons. The investigation report gives blow by blow account of what happened. In that disaster, the short circuits were preceded by excessive vibrations and blowing up of the turbine number 2, which in turn led to water entering the electric system.[vii]
In the same year of Russian disaster, Srisailam dam faced its severest existential disaster on Oct 2, 2009, which was essentially a man made disaster that brought catastrophic floods to the Srisailam dam. The reports had clear conclusion: “Experts have unanimously called it manmade and have blamed the floods on the poor coordination among Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Experts said irrigation engineers, who control the release of water from dams, have little understanding of what goes on upstream, midstream or downstream.”[viii]
Fire at Hydro projects in India There was fire due to short circuit after a blast in the machine at NHPC’s Parbati-2 hydropower project early in the morning of July 29 2020, in the Sainj Valley of Kullu district early hours also on Thursday, exactly three weeks before the Srisailam incident. That incident involved extensive damage.[ix]
Earlier in June 2018, there was extensive fire at NHPC’s Uri Hydropower project in Kashmiar.[x] At 6 am on Nov 20, 2014 (that is within four months of commissioning of the project), transformer ignited a fire in the main powerhouse of the NHPC’s 240-MW Uri-II hydroelectric project in the district of Baramulla in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). The fire destroyed part of the powerhouse and forced its four 60-MW generators to shut down at the US$450 million project. Similar to the Srisailam disaster, the initial fire generated such a tremendous amount of smoke that firefighters were unable to reach the powerhouse via the station’s underground access point.[xi]
Conclusion Key problem is that if you look for credible, independent report of any of the fire disasters at Indian hydropower projects, you wont find any. If there is no such report where is the question of learning any lessons or fixing any accountability. We are destined to face more and more disasters as long as we don’t start having such independent assessments of each such disasters.