With earthquakes rolling across the country this week and the realization that the structural soundness of our country’s bridge infrastructure and nuclear facilities may be questionable during seismic events, having a quick method to determine the extent of damage is essential. Well, a software application that uses ground sensors to analyze earthquake shaking data in California, developed by the California Department of Transportation and the U.S. Geological Survey, is now also being used to monitor nuclear power plants in Japan and elsewhere around the world.

The USGS tailored a new version of its ShakeCast software for Caltrans’ needs in 2008. Caltrans says this post-event analysis tool can ultimately lead to changes in the way the department responds following a major earthquake. ShakeCast is a web-based application that, within 10 minutes of an event, automatically retrieves measured earthquake shaking data, analyzes this against individual bridge performance characteristics, and generates inspection prioritization emails and other web-based products for responders.

The Caltrans version automatically determines the shaking value at the locations of more than 11,000 bridges and facilities for events greater than magnitude 3.5, sets thresholds for notification of damage states for each facility and automatically distributes email messages to responders within five minutes of the event.

According to Caltrans’ GeoResearch Group, the bridge damage models assigned to ShakeCast via Basoz & Mander (1999) use peak spectral accelerations and take into account bridge geometry (span lengths, number of spans, column heights, skew, etc.); year of design, construction and retrofit; material types; and soil conditions. Damage states are coded as red, yellow and green, corresponding to the varying degrees of damage, with green roughly correlated to “moderate” damage and red to “severe” damage. These assessments are teamed with Google maps to pinpoint severity.

This summer, the International Atomic Energy Agency started using ShakeCast to monitor potential damage to nuclear facilities in Japan following the March earthquake, and is also using it to monitor close to 200 other nuclear power plants around the world.

According to Caltrans, during the 7.2 Calexico earthquake in Southern California in April 2010, ShakeCast identified the only bridge damaged in the event as the top priority for inspection. The software is also being used by other public agencies in California, including the Los Angeles Unified School District.