Shake shack

UNR's seismic program gets new support from the feds

Ian Buckle heads UNR’s Center for Civil Engineering Earthquake Research.

Ian Buckle heads UNR’s Center for Civil Engineering Earthquake Research.

The University of Nevada, Reno has been crowing about its seismic-studies program for a while, and now a study tied to nuclear energy buildings will reportedly make the school’s earthquake lab the best of its kind worldwide. The U.S. Department of Energy has backed plans to build a $4.8 million soil box/shake-table system that will gauge large buildings’ tendency to influence the course of a quake.

New buildings aren’t so much of a hazard, said Ian Buckle, who directs the university’s Center for Civil Engineering Earthquake Research.

“In fact, we think we’ve known how to build a new building safely for about a decade or two,” Buckle said. “Our biggest problem in Reno and in San Francisco and in Chicago and in Tokyo is not the new buildings, but the old ones, which were built before modern codes. They will for sure be heavily damaged, collapse, and people will be hurt. [The program is] not just keeping people safe in the buildings, but also keeping the building intact so you can go to work tomorrow or go have school tomorrow and not have to evacuate people from their homes.”

As for nuclear facilities, the one closest to Reno is Diablo Canyon, in Avila Beach, California—about 300 miles away. Several reports indicate the plant’s reactors are around 30 years old. Most of the country’s plants are on the East Coast, but the earthquake-prone West obviously has enough such buildings to get attention.

UNR’s federal grant allows for a massive soil box, College of Engineering dean Manos Maragakis said in a press release, describing a structure that holds more than 500 tons. “It will be unique in the world at this scale,” he said. “Results from smaller boxes don’t translate into the real world as well as experiments at the scale we will be using.”

A soil box admittedly sounds like a handsome pile of dirt and a few 2-by-4s, but ones this sophisticated don’t come cheap.

“It doesn’t sound terribly exciting,” Buckle admitted with a laugh. “It’s like a big sand box the size of a house, full of soil, and then we put structures on top of the soil and see what happens.”

The shake table that jostles the box is high-tech enough to replicate the ground movement from specific earthquakes, such as the one in Nepal. The system will be UNR’s fifth—more than you’ll find at any other lab worldwide, apparently—and take two years to build. The grant also covers a few additional years of research.

“You could say, and rightly so, ’Surely you’ve been studying those effects for a long time,’” Buckle said. “It looks like a no-brainer to look at the foundation under a building, and not just the building alone. Yes, we know it’s important, but it’s not been possible to study it realistically at large scale, because we’ve not had equipment to do so, or the computer programs, or fast-enough computers to do numerical simulations of these effects.”