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Disaster tests for grids, dams and power plants

The STREST project is helping authorities to assess the vulnerability of specific infrastructure such as dams, pipelines and ports to prepare for low-probability, high-impact events.© Shutterstock/Asturcon
The STREST project is helping authorities to assess the vulnerability of specific infrastructure such as dams, pipelines and ports to prepare for low-probability, high-impact events.© Shutterstock/Asturcon

Imagine the scenario, an earthquake strikes a small Mediterranean city, forcing people out of their homes and shattering roads. Then, violent aftershocks cause a landslide, burying one of the city suburbs, but rescuers can’t get in because the roads have been damaged.

Thankfully it hasn’t happened, but natural disasters risk damaging the critical infrastructure that modern societies rely on to provide essential goods and services, and researchers are working out the best way to test crucial facilities such as rail networks, power grids and dams, and work out what would happen if one natural catastrophe were to trigger another.

Cascading failures have become an increasing concern since Japan’s 2011 Fukushima catastrophe, where an offshore earthquake triggered a tsunami, which damaged a nuclear power station, causing radioactive material to be released into the surrounding environment.

That disaster prompted researchers to examine the vulnerability of Europe’s infrastructure to a similar chain of disasters.

The EU-funded INFRARISK project is looking at ways to improve risk assessments and how Europe-wide systems can be put in place to better protect road and rail network infrastructure from natural disasters.

‘The aim is to produce a visually based geographic information system to present the risk of an event occurring in a particular location, the potential damage that could occur to a structure on the network at that location, and the effect that damage might have on that network or another network,’ said Dr Mark Tucker, of Irish engineering consultancy Roughan & O’Donovan Innovative Solutions (ROD-IS), which is coordinating the INFRARISK research project.

Computer modelling is being used to work out how much damage could be done, and for case study simulation, the project will use parts of the planned Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T), a pan-European train, plane and ship network that is expected to start linking-up national services across the continent by 2030.

Dams, pipelines and ports

EU nuclear power stations have already undergone stress tests in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, but many other important facilities such as roads or gas transportation systems have yet to be analysed in such a systematic way. The EU-funded STREST project, coordinated by Professor Domenico Giardini from Switzerland’s ETH Zurich university, is developing similar stress tests for critical infrastructure such as dams, pipelines and ports and is looking at the impact of cascading disasters.

‘The final goal is to enable ... European policies for the systematic implementation of stress tests.’

Dr Arnaud Mignan, project manager of STREST

The three-year project, which started in 2013, will look at case studies ranging from an Italian oil refinery to dams in Switzerland, oil and gas pipelines in Turkey, gas storage and distribution in the Netherlands, a Greek port infrastructure and an Italian industrial zone.

The tests will encompass earthquakes, tsunamis and floods, to assess the vulnerability of specific infrastructure and expected losses.

‘The final goal is to enable ... European policies for the systematic implementation of stress tests,’ said project manager Dr Arnaud Mignan.

The impacts on critical infrastructure can be calculated using models of cascading disasters and data such as specific fragility curves – for things like concrete or steel structures – to identify where problems could occur and where these might be worst. This can allow assessment of how much the dam or pipeline could withstand before rupturing, with the results presented as either a pass or fail, or probable outcomes for a given intensity.

Identifying these risks should help planners avoid making the same mistakes when designing future facilities, and also retrofit existing ones to better protect them from potential future disasters, Dr Mignan said.

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