Monitoring Uranium mining and milling using commercial observation satellites

2015 ESARDA Symposium, May 19-21, 2015, Manchester, United Kingdom

Lalitha Sundaresan, Visiting Professor, International Strategic and Security Studies Programme, NIAS

S. Chandrashekar, JRD Tata Chair Professor, International Strategic and Security Studies Programme, NIAS

Bhupendra Jasani, Visiting Professor, Department of War Studies, King’s College London and Adjunct Faculty, International Strategic and Security Studies Programme, NIAS

esardaProfessor Lalitha Sundaresan presented a paper entitled “Monitoring Uranium mining and milling using commercial observation satellites” at the 2015 Symposium of the European Safeguards Research and Development Association (ESARDA) at Manchester, UK between May 19-21. The paper was a joint effort with Profs. S.Chandrashekar and Bhupendra Jasani.

To read the complete paper click here

Abstract of the Paper

As  several  states  have  signed  the  Additional  Protocol  to  their  Safeguards  Agreements  with  the International  Atomic  Energy  Agency  (IAEA),  they  will  need  to  declare  their  nuclear  activities  in considerable detail, including their operational and shut down uranium mines.  This could significantly increase the burden on the resources of the IAEA in carrying out its safeguards procedures.

The IAEA could use space-based high-resolution panchromatic, multi-spectral and hyper-spectral sensors to verify some aspects of  uranium mining and milling.   Such techniques could  reduce the overall  costs.  The availability of such data cost free on the Google Earth web site and commercially from various imagery providers makes it possible for analysts to make assessments concerning the nuclear fuel cycle activities of various countries of interest. The mining of uranium and its conversion through a milling process into U3O8 (yellow cake) is the first step of a complex conversion cycle that determines how the mined material will be used.

Our study discusses the possible use of satellite imagery for identifying and monitoring uranium mining and milling activities. In the study an attempt is made to answer the following questions:

  1. Can we identify uranium mines using openly available satellite imagery?
  2. Can we use various steps in uranium milling operations to identify such mills across the world?
  3. Are there other extraction processes that share similar features with those for uranium? If so, then are there any special features present or absent in the sequence of operations for their extraction that helps an analyst separate a uranium operation from other operations that share some or all of the features present in the extraction of uranium?

Based  on  empirically  derived  observables  and  signatures  from satellite  imagery  for  typical  uranium extraction operations we have derived a decision making algorithm for determining whether a particular facility can be categorized as a uranium mill or whether it should be categorized as some other facility.The method has been used to look at some copper mills across several locations and have shown that the decision making algorithm does help us to separate out a uranium mill from a copper mill.

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