The Role of Open Source Imagery in Monitoring Nuclear Activity

A recently released report by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre focuses on analyzing how repositories of open source aerial and satellite imagery can be used to help monitor nuclear activity.  The report entitled, “Commercial Satellite Imagery as an Evolving Open-Source Verification Technology: Emerging Trends and Their Impact for Nuclear Nonproliferation Analysis” was written by Frank Pabian , the Senior Open-Source Information Research Analyst for Nonproliferation Monitoring and Verification at the European Commission’s Joint Research Center.

Access the report: Commercial Satellite Imagery as an Evolving Open-Source Verification Technology: Emerging Trends and Their Impact for Nuclear Nonproliferation Analysis

The report’s abstract:

One evolving and increasingly important means of verification of a State’s compliance with its international security obligations involves the application of publicly available commercial satellite imagery. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) views commercial satellite imagery as “a particularly valuable open source of information.” In 2001, the IAEA established an in-house Satellite Imagery Analysis Unit (SIAU) to provide an independent capability for “the exploitation of satellite imagery which involves imagery analysis, including correlation/fusion with other sources (open source, geospatial, and third party). Commercial satellite imagery not only supports onsite inspection planning and verification of declared activities,” but perhaps its most important role is that it also “increases the possibility of detecting proscribed nuclear activities.” Analysis of imagery derived from low-earth-orbiting observation satellites has a long history dating to the early 1906s in the midst of the Cold War era. That experience provides a sound basis for effectively exploiting the flood of now publicly available commercial satellite imagery data that is now within reach of anyone with Internet access. This paper provides insights on the process of imagery analysis, together with the use of modern geospatial tools like Google Earth, and highlights a few of the potential pitfalls that can lead to erroneous analytical conclusions. A number of illustrative exemplar cases are reviewed to illustrate how academic researchers (including those within the European Union’s Joint Research Centre) and others in Non-Governmental Organizations are now applying commercial satellite imagery in combination with other open source information in innovative and effective ways for various verification purposes. The international constellation of civil imaging satellites is rapidly growing larger, thereby improving the temporal resolution (reducing the time between image acquisitions), but the satellites are also significantly improving in capabilities with regard to both spatial and spectral resolutions. The significant increase, in both the volume and type of raw imagery data that these satellites can provide, and the ease of access to it, will likely lead to a concomitant increase in new non-proliferation relevant knowledge as well. Many of these new developments were previously unanticipated, and they have already had profound effects beyond what anyone would have thought possible just a few years ago. Among those include multi-satellite, multi-sensor synergies deriving from the diversity of sensors and satellites now available, which are exemplified in a few case studies. This paper also updates earlier work on the subject by this author and explains how the many recent significant developments in the commercial satellite imaging domain will play an ever increasingly valuable role for open source nuclear nonproliferation monitoring and verification in the future.



Analyzing Risk for Radioactive Materials Using GIS

Radioactive materials pose significant health problems, particularly as their presence is common in rural and urban environments. Earlier studies in GIS were particularly focused on analyzing safe transportation that looked at where the safest routes might be in the transportation of radioactive materials, particularly as materials had to be moved across populated areas.[1] Factors such as population density, road traffic, and weather affect optimal, least-cost route estimates.

Using GIS for Site Analysis for Storing Radioactive Materials

More recent studies have utilized the analytical capabilities in GIS for quantifying risk in the storage of radioactive materials. Using established federal guidelines for criteria on the types of geological region (e.g., type of rock, distance from populated areas, and depth of safe storage), GIS was used to demonstrate areas that could be more or less suitable for radioactive storage.[2] Radioactive substances in the earth that could potentially be harmful at high levels also generally occur based on a variety of soil characteristics, including the types of underlying bedrock. The distribution of radionuclides, as one example, depends on bedrock characteristics. Based on this, Kriging techniques have been used to estimate areas of radioactive concentration, where the bedrock type is used as a determinant of concentration of the radioactive substance. This, in effect, estimates radioactivity in areas that might not be as known for levels of radioactive measurements.[3]

Spatial prediction map for the ordinary kriging interpolation of 232 Th. Map: Dindaroğlu, 2014.

GIS and Disaster Management of Radioactive Materials

Relatively recent major disasters, such as the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, caused by an earthquake and tsunami, have caused renewed interest in disaster management in relation to radioactive materials. Simulation of water transport of nuclear substances has been one application used to estimate where or what regions could be more greatly affected by radioactive water supplies as well to help determine risks to populations.[4] The use of hydrologic simulation models and water transport finite element modeling have ways in how this research has been conducted.

Map of the Radioactive Analysis around Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. Source: TEPCO, 2016.


[1] For more information on radioactive transportation and GIS, see:  Souleyrette, R. R., & Sathisan, S. K. (1994). GIS for Radioactive Materials Transportation. Computer-Aided Civil and Infrastructure Engineering, 9(4), 294–304.

[2] For more on using GIS for the storage of radioactive materials, see:  Wilson, C. A., Matthews, K., Pulsipher, A., & Wang, W.-H. (2016). Using Geographic Information Systems to Determine Site Suitability for a Low-Level Radioactive Waste Storage Facility: Health Physics, 110, S17–S25.

[3] For more on kriging used to estimate radioactive concentration, see: Dindaroğlu, T. (2014). The use of the GIS Kriging technique to determine the spatial changes of natural radionuclide concentrations in soil and forest cover. Journal of Environmental Health Science and Engineering, 12(1).

[4] For more on the Fukushima water transport modeling, see:  Samuels, W. B., Bahadur, R., & Ziemniak, C. (2014). Waterborne Transport Modeling of Radioactivity from the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant Incident. In R. M. Clark & S. Hakim (Eds.), Securing Water and Wastewater Systems (pp. 135–148). Cham: Springer International Publishing.