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Japan Orders Nationwide Check of Tunnels After Collapse

Nine Confirmed Dead in Japan Highway Tunnel Collapse
Rescue workers and police gather outside the Sasago tunnel along the Chuo highway near the city of Otsuki in Yamanashi prefecture, 80 kms west of Tokyo after part of the tunnel collapsed. Photographer: Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

Japan ordered inspections of 49 tunnels nationwide after the collapse of a highway tunnel near Mt. Fuji killed nine people and crushed cars in the nation’s deadliest tunnel disaster in 16 years.

The inspections are to be conducted by Dec. 12 on all tunnels that have a ceiling structure similar to the collapsed tunnel’s, according to a statement on the transport ministry’s website yesterday. About 270 concrete slabs weighing 1.4 tons each fell from the ceiling of the Sasago Chuo expressway tunnel about 85 kilometers (53 miles) west of Tokyo Sunday morning.

Police raided the headquarters of highway operator Central Nippon Expressway Co. today, company spokesman Satoshi Noguchi said in a phone interview. “We will fully cooperate with the police,” he said. Police and Central Nippon engineers are investigating the cause of the collapse, according to Noguchi.

The Sasago underground passage remained closed, causing traffic jams in Otsuki city, where the tunnel runs, and along a section of Route 20 that runs parallel to the expressway linking Tokyo and Nagoya, Japan’s fourth-largest city, according to Yoshihiro Seto, a police spokesman. The incident shows Japan needs to improve aging facilities, said Masahiro Mochizuki, a Tokyo-based analyst at Credit Suisse AG.

“Japan has the most earthquakes, and there needs to be more investment in public infrastructure,” said Mochizuki. “Most roads in Japan were built around the time of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and are aging.”

Missing Bolts

The tunnel to Tokyo’s Haneda airport, and the Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line, which includes an underwater passage between Kanagawa and Chiba prefectures, are among the facilities to be inspected, according to the transport ministry. The passages, like Sasago, have concrete slab ceilings that are suspended by metal bolts to allow ventilation.

The tunnels will remain partly open during the inspections, according to Central Nippon’s Noguchi.

Some bolts securing a strap supporting the tunnel ceiling were discovered missing, Noguchi said. The Sasago tunnel in Yamanashi prefecture was last inspected by Central Nippon in September, according to the Transport ministry.

“The bolts may have been getting old or earthquakes may have had some effect,” said Satoshi Noguchi, a spokesman for Central Nippon.

The 4-kilometer Sasago passage, built in 1976, is near the start of an expressway that carried an average of 37,000 vehicles a day in the 12 months through April.

Deliveries Delayed Inc. temporarily suspended its instant shipping service in the area served by the tunnel and restaurant operator Yoshinoya Holdings Co. rerouted food deliveries, the Sankei newspaper reported. Convenience store chain FamilyMart Co. said it’s adjusting the timing of its deliveries.

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 Sasago tunnel was built by a venture between Taisei Corp. and Obayashi Corp. Taisei fell 0.9 percent as of 11:30 a.m. in Tokyo trading today while Obayashi declined 0.2 percent.

“Opposition toward public spending on infrastructure will probably become relaxed,” said Yoji Otani, an analyst at Deutsche Bank AG in Tokyo. “You can’t place a value on human lives.”

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda expressed his condolences to the victims yesterday and ordered the transport minister to provide emergency relief to the injured and investigate the cause quickly.

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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