Concerns, consequences of seismic devastation
DISCUSSION FORUM Concerns, consequences of seismic devastation Mar 2011
Shani Wallis, TunnelTalk
The images of Japan in the aftermath of the giant earthquake and its terrifying tsunami last week and the consequent failure of its nuclear power plant reactors at Fukushima show the scale of the disaster that the people of Japan have to face and overcome.

Destruction on the surface, near normalcy underground

Amid all the mayhem, the news reporting and images are of what can be seen and witnessed on the surface, but what of the underground?
Japan has an underground environment to mirror its vast development on the surface. The fact that there is no news about Japan's underground infrastructure must mean there is no news - or that the report is so minor as to pale to insignificance compared to the reality of the situation on the surface.
In reaching out to our friends and readers in Japan after the catastrophic events of last week, TunnelTalk has learned that while "most of the train and subway in Tokyo stopped in last midnight [but] almost all of the trains and subways are [now] running [again]."
That message was received on Satureday March 12, within 36 hours of the earthquake struck at about 3pm on Friday afternoon March 11.
The only two other news media reports found in a search of the internet was a sensational note of speculation by a tabloid about fear of being "buried alive" in collapsing tunnels and a paragraph in a Wall Street Journal report that spoke of "A 16-foot-high tunnel running underneath the airport's runways [in Sendai, the city most affected by the tsunami] for about 500 yards was entirely flooded.] and of sending in divers in find any bodies of drowned people once the tunnel was drained.

The moment the tsunami hit Sendai

No news therefore can only mean good news for the well being of world leading underground facilities in Japan, which include Tokyo's extensive underground metro system as well as Japan's major undersea links - the 54km long Siekan railway tunnel beneath the Tsugaru Strait between Honshu and Hokkaidô and the 15km long Trans-Tokyo Bay highway of 10km twin tube bored tunnel connecting at an artificial island to a 5km suspension bridge.
As on so many previous occasions, the reality of the aftermath of strong earthquakes is that the underground remains remarkably intact when the surface has suffered devastating destruction.
Earthquakes in Mexico City; in Kobe Japan; in Chengdu, China; in San Francisco, California; in Santiago, Chile; all had no headline news of underground or tunnel collapses or failures. For cities in seismically active zones, and for urban development in general, this has to be one of the abiding inherent advantages of underground facilities over surface or elevated alternatives. Of course there it is acknowledged that the underground environment would have been equally as horrifyingly impacted to the consequences of the tsunami as the surface.

Consequent failure of the nuclear power plant in Fukushima

But while the resilience of tunnels to earthquakes can in no way be a position for complacency, it should also not be ignored as a matter of fact and historic record when the debate about surface or underground alignment of major public infrastructure is discussed at the start of planning. As well as other issues that are gaining much traction in densely developed regions of the world, including the decisions about the most appropriate use of limited land space and protecting the quality and value of the surface environment, developing the underground option has far reaching and fundamental advantages in the long-term life-cycle durability and operating maintenance and repair considerations.
Perhaps the question should also be asked, as a result of events in Japan - should not the entire installation of new nuclear power plants be built deep underground in rock caverns in much the same way that hydro power station generators are and have been for many decades.
Any Feedback on these issues is welcome and will be shared with TunnelTalk readers.
Designed for seismic survival - TunnelTalk, Sept 2009
Santiago withstands massive earthquake - TunnelTalk, March 2010
Alaskan Way bored tunnel agreement - TunnelTalk, Oct 2009

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