Monitoring large enrichment plants using thermal imagery from commercial satellites: A case study

Adam Bernstein, "Monitoring large enrichment plants using thermal imagery from commercial satellites: A case study," Science & Global Security, 9, no. 2, (2001): 143-163.
Thermal imagery from currently operating commercial satellites is an interesting candidate technology for monitoring certain types of fissile material production sites. Potential applications include the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT) or a Fissile Material Production Moratorium. To help determine the capabilities and limitations of such imagery as a monitoring tool, I have examined archived LANDSAT-5 images of the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, a large U.S. uranium-enrichment facility in Ohio. My analysis indicates that large-scale gaseous diffusion plants (GDPs) can very likely be recognized as operational with thermal imagery throughout most of the year in clear weather conditions. It may also be possible to identify certain other large-scale changes in operations, such as the shut-down of a single process building in a plant, by comparing rooftop temperatures of neighboring operational process buildings. However, uncertainties in the current data set prevent a definitive conclusion regarding the latter capability. This study identifies intrinsic weaknesses, including vulnerability to countermeasures, that prevent thermal imagery from satellites (at current resolutions) from being a robust stand-alone verification tool, even for very large plants. Nonetheless, the imagery may be useful to trigger an on-site inspection, to alert and train inspectors prior to an inspection, and to reduce the frequency of on-site inspections required at a given site. It could have immediate utility for monitoring the two large GDPS in the United States and the French plant at Tricastin, and possibly for determining the operational status of two GDPS in China as well - a total of five plants worldwide. The ease of acquisition and modest cost of thermal commercial imagery further increase its attractiveness as a verification tool.

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