Japan ordered a nationwide inspection of 49 tunnels after the collapse of a highway tunnel near Mt. Fuji killed nine people and crushed cars with almost 400 tons of concrete in the nation’s worst tunnel disaster in 16 years.
The Ministry of Transport ordered the inspections to be conducted by 5 p.m. on Dec. 12, according to a statement on the ministry’s website. About 270 concrete slabs, each weighing 1.4 tons, fell from the ceiling of the Sasago tunnel on the Chuo expressway about 85 kilometers (53 miles) west of Tokyo early Sunday morning.
Japan’s highway network includes more than 1,500 tunnels, with a quarter of them more than 30 years old, according to the Transport Ministry. The 4-kilometer Sasago tunnel, which was built in 1976, may have collapsed because of age or seismic activity, according to Central Nippon Expressway Co., which operates the toll road.
“The bolts may have been getting old or there was some impact from earthquake activity,” said Satoshi Noguchi, a spokesman for Central Nippon. A final assessment on the cause of the collapse will be given after police and Central Nippon engineers complete their investigations, he said.
Some bolts securing the strap supporting the tunnel ceiling were found to be missing, Noguchi said. The Sasago tunnel in Yamanashi prefecture was last inspected by Central Nippon in September, according to the Transport ministry.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda expressed his condolences to the victims yesterday.
“I would like to express my sincere prayers for those who lost their lives and were injured in this accident,” Noda told reporters in Tokyo. “I have instructed the Transportation Ministry to do everything possible to provide emergency relief to the injured and to investigate the cause quickly and thoroughly to prevent a recurrence.”
Among the 49 tunnels to be inspected are the Haneda tunnel leading to the airport in central Tokyo and the Tokyo Bay Aqua- Line, which includes an underwater tunnel connecting Kanagawa and Chiba prefectures, the ministry said.
“Japan has the most earthquakes, and there needs to be more investment in public infrastructure,” said Masahiro Mochizuki, a Tokyo-based analyst at Credit Suisse AG. “Most roads in Japan were built around the time of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and are aging.”
The Sasago tunnel was built in 1976 by a joint-venture between Taisei Corp. (1801) and Obayashi Corp. (1802) Taisei shares rose 4.9 percent and Obayashi gained 3 percent yesterday on optimism criticism about public spending on infrastructure will wane, according to Yoji Otani, an analyst at Deutsche Bank AG in Tokyo.
“Opposition toward public spending on infrastructure will likely become relaxed,” Otani said. “You can’t place a value on human lives.”
Drivers near the Sasago tunnel were diverted to route 20, which runs almost parallel to the Chuo expressway, which links Tokyo to Nagoya, Japan’s fourth-largest city. Central Nippon also operates the Tomei expressway, which is an alternate route.
In 1996, a rockslide near the entrance of the Toyohama tunnel in Hokkaido crushed a bus and killed 20 people, while 7 people died in 1979 in the Nihonzaka tunnel along the Tomei expressway in Shizuoka prefecture after a fire from a car crash.
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