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Ep. 69: Engineering technologies for earthquake safetyToday we're talking about engineering for earthquakes, and how what we know about geology affects how buildings and structures are designed for different locations. Our guests: A structural engineer and a geologist from the USGS.
Hi everyone welcome to reporters' roundtable -- Rick -- in San Francisco thanks for joining us. Today we're going to be talking about earthquake safety. Japan of course we'll be recovering. Four years from the nine point oh earthquake in following follow and -- tsunami that followed immediately after that. That just struck a week ago. Yet of all the places to be hit by such a disaster -- the the thinking goes in Japan is probably the best best prepared best engineered country in the world. To deal with something like that yet still there was devastation thousands of people were killed entire towns were swept away by the tsunami and of course there are nuclear plants now that are. Offline and we'll never. For -- to produce power again and that are. As we know -- reading anything in the news. Spewing dangerous amounts of radiation and the earth people try to rescue these power plants. How did this happen in -- of all places what technologies and engineering. Were used -- will be used in the future to prevent such disasters from having such serious effects. Could this happen here here. For me being San Francisco California but anywhere could the same thing happen to other power plant the infrastructure. Around. The United States and around the world that's we're going to be talking about today we're talking about. Engineering technologies for -- what we've learned from -- we learned from this and previous earthquakes. How buildings and structures are designed differently in different regions. Before we get started is one thing I want to mention. If you would like to lend a helping hand to Japan. Molly Wood from -- allowed to set up a little thing on gazelle which is a gadget recycling service. You can send your -- gadgets to -- sell. By going to CNET dot gazelle that's G -- ZELL dot com. And donating your -- all -- to coat the Red Cross the please take advantage of that. We've break yesterday to talk about this very important topic first here in the studio with us Andy Thompson. Who's the author of peace of mind in earthquake country. Which I have right here. Great book I highly recommend you check it out if you are in an earthquake afflicted -- like California or. Washington or organ or basically anywhere. If an earthquake country he is also an engineer at -- up which is giant engineering firm around the world Andy thank you for making the time to come and thank you. Also joining us from the US GS the United States Geological Survey down in Menlo Park Tom holder who's -- research geologist for the earthquake hazards team at the US GS. Tom thanks for making the time as well. -- let's get started what are you in your firms doing in reaction to the disaster in Japan what is an engineering firm of the US GS do. Two react to such a a gigantic earthquake and tsunami afterwards. Where is. Actively involved right now and working with our our lines and helping -- lines. In this event we actually have a an approximate fifty or sixty person. Office in Tokyo didn't and they are helping. -- actually are US based clients. With damage assessments of these things is very important in this global economy. That. That. Organizations even better based the United States with operations. In Japan of course get on there -- -- quickly as possible. -- and -- -- off. -- -- right now the immediate steps are to really. Work with these clients work with both our clients in the US and other clients throughout the world who have operations in Japan to make sure that their facilities. Our -- are are safe to to continue operations or what needs to be done. And we're also beginning get a little involved some insurance claim -- -- -- -- now before. Before gonna -- And has -- looking for your clients over there. -- amateurs looking -- -- pretty good we've we've we've focused mainly or or or most of the assessment that we've -- have been in the in the Tokyo. -- area -- hand and and north but not necessarily affected by the phenom. And so so most of those buildings that we've looked at have performed. Well and competitive and the they will be able to continue operations. Now Tom Walter your geologists that the USG ST SUS is a fairly large US government operation. What is your reaction to this earthquake aside from. I what I imagine is hundreds of media requests for interviews like this one. Well it partners and B artists and -- you suggest that starts. When the earthquake itself that it permission to use that into the noted Wharton center so we actually become involved. When you're quite right for me out literally the first few sections. Needle RC horror -- bestsellers. Are desperate throw Saddam and so. That scenario boarding process begins -- beginning where all. -- because we are a large organization -- liking it all aspects. Of the earthquake. While including studies like trying to figure out the -- are telling us our computers some are not masters course we wouldn't expect to be a -- are to a larger. When you damaging earthquake he wanted to know. -- the surrounding -- are being loaded by the stress changes so we begin a variety those kind of analyses. It whether or not we've been you know worse in terms of my personal actions as required -- The most impressive aspect from geologic perspective is that. We we just didn't anticipate something this large. On this segment -- important to -- -- -- -- -- that Japanese. Pretty much dropped out. Slightly slower -- -- -- ports slightly smaller. -- yeah there -- many hundred or more. Trivial records. That they didn't just but it mentored nine which means more -- and the potential for operators -- -- Having said that there is interesting there was researched it was. Just finished that it indicated there earthquake backed. -- -- noted that 896. That problem a lot like this well. It really had a few more heaters that landed him or what the potential us directions on us offshore -- -- are actually was. So I would I want to start by talking about. What happens in an earthquake like this what happens in particular with man made structures. Big ones infrastructure structures. Is so can we talk about what happens to a nuclear plant a little bit when an earthquake like this starts and then I I want to talk about other types of power plants rail. Power distribution etc. so what happens when there's an ethnically it's with. The look at it as they stepped back and just look at how. Infrastructures -- for -- structures or are considered with in the engineering communities there are two things happening here one is the hazard. What is it is thrown at. Structure and that that will be very dependent upon them. As. Tom hunter -- tested. -- -- in the -- and and how do we propagate to the soil on these things when he gets the actual infrastructure itself then we start looking at the vulnerability. All of that so what we do is we look at. Within the engineering community we look at water at the performance objectives for various types of hazard levels associated. With. What performance levels for those different. Type of I've been so for example a very frequent event we would then say. For certain critical infrastructure we would want that infrastructure to be immediately operational would be if you beat it -- be working. Through the event right after the event and or larger and larger events we might be willing to society to accept more and more damage so how does that and transcend into actually what happens. For building -- office buildings in typical buildings and the code in the United States and Japan and elsewhere. Generally a implies that some Wii will have. Some damage within -- structure there will be some energy absorption within that structure meaning that there will be that that that the facility might not -- Used -- it might have to be even torn down. Afterwards. For. Four other facilities as we go up in critic Alex -- we look at me critical. -- like -- these sorts of things engineers will then say okay when we actually want that to be. Functioning -- so we will design that in a more rigorous way and then as we go all the way. To the other and respect to the far -- the Specter -- the power plants. Very strict performance criteria for that. For obvious reasons -- that now so the question is how. What happens in -- nuclear power plant. If you're in an earthquake -- well they'll be the effect of the earthquake and Andy and the structure in the equipment needs to be designed for that. -- there then needs to be some consideration. For the fact that might get knocked up the power agreed to -- via lack of power so there were merged -- They -- back up systems to ensure. That that the the decay of the view that that process has been cool. And but the performance criteria are extremely. Extremely high that are so we hear that during an earthquake in in a nuclear plant whether it was once in Japan or or anyone. That immediately control -- dropped to two. Terminate that the majority of the reaction that's that's automatic is that is that right yeah I'm not a I'm not an expert in in nuclear plant design or or or or nuclear power -- so I can't speak specifically. To exactly. What happens loaded into stated is that. At the very far into the spectrum is is nuclear power plants and and such things as. All the different aspect in cascading events that we've seen in Japan. Are certainly it intended to be take into account and and and that. -- performance. Is. Would be valued added that it doesn't have the sort of thing that have. Well why do when you when you're when you or your company are designing. Being critical infrastructure things. Rail stations buildings with gigantic elevators and -- are there automatic systems in place to immediately try to go into some kind of locked down safe -- so that people don't get. Stuck in chaps that are cricket or something like that to our systems design rather that that Bart trains will come to slow stop just in case there's problem on the rails that -- -- -- happened yes absolutely and. And in fact and you mentioned. Rail systems. And the -- and -- in Japan for example has as methods for four for stopping the train and in the event of an earthquake and and other rail systems in earthquake country including Bart certainly have. Have mechanisms and and and plans in place for four for dealing with with -- you mentioned. Elevators for example yes the the the the idea is that everybody. Gets out of the building okay right and so that those those those plans increasingly. Are are taken into account. So. -- have we learned anything at the moment from. The way the earth behaved in Japan that will. Change the way we design infrastructure. In -- things that are currently under design -- consideration right now. Aside from the sheer magnitude of it -- or anything that with interest thing or different -- important about this particular event. Yeah it's. Too early to tell me -- most of via personal art and focused. -- recovery and -- really been a lot of assessment done but I think the most important. Lesson from it is going alluded to make sure you know it's we have similar types of geologic setting off shore and not the Washington Oregon and actually stands down and -- California and Alaska. In Puerto Rico as well as subduction -- -- Doesn't the fact it's such a large segment all about ruptured and created a much larger. Amount of ground shaking -- rush orders as Norman would be something there. -- a lot affect not only the design routine social structures but power plants and government users. So over the last twenty years what has -- I mean. These plants the the plants in Japan are planned they were forty years old at least one of them -- What's changed since then the last forty or even -- in the last twenty years and how we built say. A modern. Structure that threatened to a critical modern structure their. Whether we get things we understand about the earth itself or about how structures behave whats -- the state of the art building at a safe resilient structure. Will -- every earthquake. Week we learn more -- That's for sure. A big a big event to the nuclear engineering -- community with the 1971 San Fernando earthquake in Southern California. And after that event. There are some some some things happen to structures that that I hadn't really been. Understood before and -- design codes. Changed. And things -- think the thing you know things have significantly improved work for respect the facilities. Built post in 1971. -- and an earthquake or -- soon thereafter when those changes and decode. And similarly for the after the 1989 earthquake in 1994 quake and and of course around the world to those those aspect of change so. What is the state of the I think it it's important go back to this concept of performance criteria and the it's important to note that the code. Implies. That the building will be quote -- safe. In in what is called a one -- 475 -- earthquake which is which is an event that -- -- what happened but that facility one -- -- 500 years that in that. Event which in California that it is a larger quake that the debt this facility is --