Wednesday, December 7th, 2011...11:50 am

Monterey Herald: MIIS student transforms nuclear intelligence

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A Monterey graduate student is adding another dimension to nuclear intelligence and attracting the interest of high-ranking defense officials.

Second-year graduate student Tamara Patton of the Monterey Institute of International Studies has been attending exclusive intelligence meetings and working on special assignments. That started after Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller identified her work as an example of how publicly available technology will help analyze and identify the presence of potential weapon sites. Gottemoeller mentioned Patton in a speech at Stanford University on Oct. 27.

Patton used Google Earth for satellite photos and Google SketchUp, a free 3D modeling program, to construct virtual recreations of potential nuclear processing facilities.

“It’s seeing nuclear infrastructure in a different way, that is more real to people,” said Frank Pabian, a visiting lecturer at MIIS and senior geospatial information analyst at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

“They don’t comprehend the size, the layout, the complexity just by looking at a two-dimensional vertical view,” Pabian said. “With three dimensions you get the context. It’s almost like you’re there.”

Since Gottemoeller’s speech at Stanford, Patton has found more work coming her way. Colleagues at the institute invited her to model a structure in northwest Syria that United Nations investigators suspected of being a nuclear enriching facility. With limited information based off satellite imagery from Google Earth, Patton made a detailed model viewable to the public (available at

“She’s done a phenomenal job of squeezing blood out of a stone,” Pabian said.

The current building is ostensibly a textile factory, with a full-fledged website, but U.N. inspectors thought it was a front because of similarities with plans for a nuclear processing facility in Libya. Patton helped verify that the images on the website matched her virtual reconstruction from satellite images, suggesting the online images were genuine.

She also overlaid current satellite photos with satellite photos from 1984, suggesting that the building had been there since then. That supported an account that it had long been a textile factory and contradicted a hypothesis that it was constructed from plans supplied by A.Q. Khan, a nuclear weapons merchant.

Patton initially attracted Gottemoeller’s attention by modeling Pakistan’s Khushab Plutonium Production Complex for her master’s thesis. By analyzing the shadows of the facilities, their location on Earth and the time of the picture, she calculated the height of various parts of the complex.

With that information, she not only can create a virtual model, but also roughly estimate the capacity for the facility to make nuclear material.

Scholars’ estimates of that production capacity have varied by a factor of 25, “a big discrepancy,” Patton said. Her measurements, which will be published in her thesis, nails down a much narrower range.

Combined with publicly accessible historical records of thermal satellite images that detect heat, she can identify how long the complex has been operating. That gives a rough estimate of how much plutonium has been produced there.

She said knowing the amount of nuclear material that Pakistan has will help verify or rebut potential claims of Pakistan’s nuclear intentions.

For example, “if we make wild claims that they’re producing enough plutonium to augment their nuclear weapons system by 50 weapons a year,” she said, “then that has some very bad policy implications with how we might respond to that, or how India might respond to that. Because if India takes those claims seriously, then you have a nuclear arms race that didn’t need to happen. So it’s important to be as accurate as possible.”

Daniel Hirsch, a UC Santa Cruz lecturer on nuclear policy, agreed.

“The more information that we can get publicly may help us avoid wars that are unnecessary,” he said.

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