Whistleblower site Sarawak Report has revealed that the controversial RM4.28 billion Murum Dam in Sarawak suffers from serious defects that can potentially cause a "catastrophic" breakdown.
The portal said project owner Sarawak Energy Bhd (SEB) was made aware of this problem as early as March this year, but had kept this from the public.
However, this has now come to light, with a report by Norwegian company Norconsult, which was tasked to carry out an independent assessment of the dam's turbines, was leaked toSarawak Report.
The Murum Dam builder, Three Gorges Development (Malaysia) Sdn Bhd, which is the Malaysian subsidiary of China-based Three Gorges Development Company (TGDC), is now being asked to repair the dam's defective turbines.
"Leaked schedules show plans to assign construction engineers to work at great heights and in danger of gas leaks and explosions in confined spaces, as they try to covertly restore turbine blades, which have been 'poorly welded' with 'no grinding' carried out.
"Consideration is even being given to the prospect of digging out the four massive hydro-electric turbines, which have already been installed in the walls of the newly-built dam – a move that would involve major demolition and the removal of huge amounts of the concrete into which the turbines have been embedded," Sarawak Report said.
According to Norconsult's assessment, it found three runners to have cracks and pores with sizes not allowed in the contract between SEB and TGDC.
"The quality of welding and grinding on the outlet is poor. The turbine runners are not suitable for installation and operation. The runners need to be checked thoroughly and repaired," it said.
The runners are intended to spin the turbines when water flows through their blades.
Norconsult warned that these defects can cause fatigue cracks, which in turn can lead to a breakdown ranging from a small to catastrophic scales.
It said this may be a simple breakdown of the runners or adjacent parts of the turbine or in the worst case scenario, flooding of the powerhouse or a fire.
Sarawak Report quoted Berkley University's hydro-electric engineering professor Daniel Kammen as saying that the defects would cause the turbines' runners to wobble, applying stress to the bolts holding the turbines.
"Over time, they will eat through the bolts they sit on and sheer off if they are not exactly aligned and carefully calibrated. This means that these blades and runners are not in operational condition," Kammen is quoted as saying.
Turbine failures have in past resulted in serious accidents, with the most recent major accident being the 2009 Sayano–Shushenskaya hydroelectric dam incident in Russia.
In that incident, the dam's turbine was not properly balanced, resulting in gradual fatigue damage before the turbine cover finally came apart and its 920-tonne rotor was shot out.
Water then gushed in from the cavity of where the turbine once stood, flooding the mechanical room and the rooms below them, leaving 75 dam staff dead.
SEB rebuts: No threat, no cost, no delay
Sarawak Report added that the implications of costs and delay to repair the dam were "shocking". SEB had set a September deadline for the dam to begin producing power.
When contacted by Malaysiakini, SEB chief executive officer Torstein Dale Sjoveit in a statement dismissed this as a "misrepresentation of facts", and said the repair works would be completed before the deadline, and at no additional cost.
"The problems found on the turbine runners are rectifiable and do not pose any danger to the workers or compromise project safety. Likewise, there will not be any additional cost to SEB as claimed bySarawak Report.
Sjoveit said a comprehensive test is conducted during the commissioning of each turbine, including the runners, before they are handed over from the contractor.
He added that TGDC has already given its commitment to fix the problem.
“TGDC has given its full commitment to complete the necessary rectification and has engaged the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) to execute the necessary works. These rectification works are currently in progress and will be completed by the end of August 2014," Sjoveit said.
He said SEB had nothing to hide and Norconsult's assessment was part of a "disciplined process to bring in international specialists to carry out checks at different stages of the project".
In the same statement, NorPower Sdn Bhd, the Malaysian subsidiary of Norconsult, reiterated that the defects could be fixed.
“These inspections are routine and part of Completion Management System and the concerns raised by Norconsult in the report are rectifiable, as confirmed by the contractor and OEM," NorPower Sdn Bhd managing director Thor A Lynaas said.