Increasing Nuclear Transparency with Satellite Imagery

By June 8, 2012

FAS was pleased to welcome experts Matthew McKinzie with the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Hans Kristensen with FAS, and Tamara Patton with the Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) this Thursday to present and discuss their use of satellite imagery to monitor nuclear forces and proliferators.

Matthew McKinzie spoke about the use of Geographic Information Systems and satellite imagery for arms control, human rights, and environmental advocacy work. Google Earth has exposed IBCM silo complexes, and observations of changes in images of the same location over time have evidenced mass building destruction on the Eritrea-Ethiopia border after the 2000 cease-fire and home demolitions in the Gaza Strip. Using knowledge from North Korean refugees, what at first appeared from satellite to be towns we now know to be prison camps. An examination of geographical overlap can also reveal locational information about Hezbollah terrorism targets in Beirut. In addition, when given known information about prevailing winds, McKinzie was able to calculate the radiation plumes that would result from a meltdown of each US power reactor at specific times during the day. The NRDC also collected data on radar throughout the US, including weather, airport surveillance, and air route surveillance radar, which, when combined with information about prevailing winds and elevation, can give essential information to the DOD about high interference areas.

Hans Kristensen presented on the use of satellite imagery to increase nuclear transparency. He used satellite imagery to monitor some of the new Chinese developments, including new mobile solid fuel DF-31 and DF-31A ICBMs, which were first seen in 1999. While the DF-31A has a long enough range for the US to be a potential target, the DF-31’s radius is too small. However, both missiles look identical from satellite, so launch platforms visible from above will give a better idea of their intended use. China’s Jin-class SSBN was spotted for the first time with satellite imagery, as well as a submarine tunnel for China’s Northern fleet. In Russia, Google Earth images show mobile launch facilities in Teykovo; an upgrade from SS-25 to SS-27, a development that allows for multiple warheads to exist on one missile; submarine ICBM sites used for test launches; bomber bases that depict AS-4 missiles, which have a dual-capable system, useful for either nuclear or conventional means; a possible weapons storage site at Kaliningrad; and storage sites in the Kola peninsula that are only 90 km away from a military base. The purpose of these observations is to increase public awareness of Chinese and Russian nuclear status, as the US is decreasing public disclosure in recent years.

Tamara Patton gave the final presentation on her use of 3D geovisualization technology applied to nuclear force developments around the world. By using 2D images from Google Earth, calculations involving the shadow of buildings and the known angle of altitude between the ground and the sun can give the height of buildings in satellite photos. Patton created a 3-D visualization of the Kushav nuclear reactor in Pakistan, as well as three other nearby reactors. Using calculations based on the size of the cooling towers, which convey the upper limit of heat released by the plants, Patton found the megawatt capacity of the reactors. This can be translated into plutonium production for weapons, and Patton obtained the estimate that the four reactors can create 8 to 20 plutonium missiles per year if constantly operating at maximum power. In addition, using only tourist photos from Google Earth, Patton was able to create a visualization of the interior of a centrifuge plant in Russia, including the control room, uranium feed and recovery rooms to collect enriched uranium, and observation deck. The 2000 centrifuges that Russia communicated that they possessed fit precisely within the main hall of the simulation.

Links to these presentations and other resources are available here.

Categories: Events, Nuclear Information, Political