Russia's drive to build a large power-generating turbine to lessen its dependence on Western technology has suffered a major set-back after a prototype broke beyond repair, two sources familiar with the project told Reuters.
In the past few years Russia has imported the large-capacity gas turbines required to run modern power stations from firms such as Siemens, GE and Alstom.
After Western sanctions were imposed on Russia over the conflict with Ukraine four years ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin urged officials to replace imported technology with home-grown substitutes in energy, software, aerospace and medicine.
The mishap with the 110 Megawatt turbine, a capacity large enough to power a sizeable town, underlines the technical challenges.
Testing was underway on a prototype 110 MW turbine at the Saturn engineering plant in Rybinsk, central Russia, in December last year according to one of the two sources, who are both in the energy sector and familiar with the results of the tests.
"The turbine fell apart," said the first source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. "They tried to repair it in time for March, but they did not manage it."
March was the target date for completion of tests on the turbine. Putin, in power since 1999, won a second consecutive term in an election on March 18.
The first source, and a second source, both said it was not possible to rebuild the prototype turbine and the project would have to start again with new equipment.
"The turbine broke up," said the second source, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media. "There's no turbine, that's it."
Without any home-grown equivalents, Russia should in most cases still be able to buy turbines from Western suppliers, but U.S. and European Union sanctions have made it harder to import Western power technology under certain circumstances.
Last year Russia clandestinely delivered turbines made by Siemens to a power station in Crimea, which is subject to sanctions, and the European Union retaliated by imposing extra sanctions on officials and companies involved in the operation.
Set-backs to the domestic turbine program could hamper the modernisation of power generation if growing tensions with Western states result in tighter sanctions since Russia's modernisation plan is focused on using gas turbines.
The technical hitch also carries a potential political cost: Putin has publicly trumpeted progress in replacing Western technology imports, so any failures will jar with the picture of success he has painted.
The new turbine is being developed by a consortium of ODK, a unit of state-owned conglomerate Rostec that owns the Saturn factory where the testing was being conducted, Russian state technology firm RUSNANO, and state energy firm InterRAO.
In a statement, ODK said one of the mechanisms of the prototype turbine had malfunctioned. It said that would delay work on the project, but could be fixed. "It is not fatal for the project." It said set-backs were to be expected since this was a pioneering project for Russia.
RUSNANO acknowledged there had been an accident but gave no details. It said it remained committed to the turbine project and expects it will be completed. InterRAO declined to comment.
Russia's Trade and Industry Ministry, which oversees the machine-building sector, declined to comment and referred questions to Rostec.
Large capacity gas turbines have been in use around the world for years but their construction is tricky to perfect.
Because they operate at extremely high speeds and high temperatures, they need to be engineered to very precise standards and they use sophisticated electronic control systems to make sure that they operate efficiently.
For many years Russia made no major investment in developing the technology because it was able to import the turbines or the know-how to produce them. A scheme started in the 1990s to develop a large-capacity turbine produced prototypes but they did not go into production.
At a meeting in Russia's second city of Saint Petersburg in May last year, chaired by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Energy Minister Alexander Novak said a 110 MW turbine had been developed and testing should be completed by March 2018.
"This is the first Russian produced powerful machine with 100-percent domestic manufacture and it will, of course, help us to completely substitute purchases of foreign equipment of this capacity," Novak told the meeting. His ministry did not respond to questions on Tuesday about the set-back.
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