Reporters' Roundtable: Earthquake engineering

Today we talk about engineering for earthquakes, and how what we know about geology affects how structures are designed for different locations. Our guests: a structural engineer and a geologist from the USGS.

Japan will be recovering for years from the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami that struck there a week ago. Arguably, of all the places in the world to get hit by such a disaster, Japan was the best prepared. Yet still there was devastation. Thousands of people died. Towns were literally washed away. Several nuclear reactors were damaged beyond repair. How did this happen? What technologies and engineering were used to mitigate earthquake and tsunami risks in Japan, and how did they fail?

And could it happen here?

Today we're talking about engineering for earthquakes, and how what we know about geology affects how buildings and other structures are designed for various locations.

Our experts today are Andy Thompson, an engineer at Arup and author of the book Peace of Mind in Earthquake Country, and Tom Holzer, research geologist for the Earth Hazards Team of the USGS in Menlo Park, Calif.

Want to help the victims of the Japan earthquake? Donate your old gadgets via the CNET program at Gazelle. All proceeds will go to the Red Cross.

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Some of our discussion points

First of all, Andy and Tom, how are your organizations responding to the Japan quake?

What happens in a nuclear plant when there's an earthquake?

What did we learn from Japan?

How has seismic engineering changed in the past, say, 20 years? How does our understanding of geology play into this?

Can a 40-year-old power plant be considered safe under today's standards?

How about other plants, power grids, or infrastructure like subway systems, elevators, etc.?

Buildings--in particular, for big ones like skyscrapers, what's the latest in engineering? Are buildings being built like cars--to save occupants but be "totaled" after a major quake?

How about technology to warn people of impending quakes? When Charles Richter, who invented the Richter scale, was asked in 1971, "What are your thoughts on the possibility of predicting earthquakes in the next two decades?" he replied, "None." Have we made progress?

Tsunami mitigation--what can be done in coastal cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York?

Could it happen here?

Wrap-up
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