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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 63, March - April 2002

Opinion & Analysis

Fostering Nuclear Transparency in South Asia through Cooperative Remote Sensing Projects

By Gaurav Rajen


Cooperative projects using commercial satellite imagery to study nuclear facilities can provide a non-intrusive beginning in greater nuclear transparency between India and Pakistan. The aim of this paper is to investigate cooperative framework agreements involving India and Pakistan that could form the basis for such projects.

Thermal signatures of reactor effluents can be used to determine whether reactors are operating or not. A determination of whether a facility is operating has obvious relevance to verifying that a facility that has been shut down has not recommenced operations. This could be of importance if India and Pakistan ever shut down reprocessing facilities as a part of regional or international agreements. Estimating the quantity of fissile materials being produced in a reactor is a prerequisite to developing fissile materials accounting systems. As officials gain confidence and trust through an initial remote sensing experiment, they could steadily increase the intrusiveness of the cooperative monitoring and begin to share data from the installations being studied. Eventually, shared data on the temperature rise of the reactor coolants and the radioactivity of the spent fuel produced could allow more exact measurements of the quantities of fissile materials being generated. More intrusive monitoring schemes would be based on systems developed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) using thermal-hydraulic reactor power monitors to confirm the absence of unrecorded production of plutonium at two large research reactors in the Republic of Korea and Indonesia.1

Cooperative monitoring projects of the sort being proposed here require existing agreements to provide a framework for implementation. The next section presents information on several such agreements.

Frameworks for Cooperative Satellite-Based Remote Sensing and Environmental Studies

The United Nations, under the auspices of its Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) in Vienna, has elaborated a set of principles relating to remote sensing of the Earth from space. The principles, adopted by General Assembly resolution 41/65 (1986), provide that -

  • remote sensing activities should be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, taking into particular consideration the needs of the developing countries;
  • remote sensing activities should include international cooperation and technical assistance;
  • remote sensing should promote the protection of the environment and protection of humankind from natural disasters;
  • and, when one country acquires data over another country, the sensed country should have access to the data on a non-discriminatory basis and on reasonable cost terms.

In order to maximise the availability of benefits from remote sensing, the principles encourage regional cooperation in the establishment and operation of collection, storage, processing, and interpretation facilities.

Multilateral cooperation in the use of space technologies has worked well in many regions. The United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) has used satellite imagery and space cooperation in attempts to strengthen the Middle East peace process. In 1999, UNIDIR and the Cooperative Monitoring Center at Sandia National Laboratories in the USA hosted a workshop to study the potential uses of commercial satellite imagery for promoting peace and development in the Middle East.2 The participants explored three main areas where remote-sensing technologies might be employed: arms control, economic development, and environmental and natural resources. These ideas from the Middle East could be of great utility in promoting a South Asian peace process.

India and Pakistan have worked together cooperatively in the use of advanced satellite remote sensing technology through various UN projects. For example, the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and the National Space Development Agency of Japan (NASDA) established a network of scientists and researchers in fourteen developing Asian countries to use data from Japan's Advanced Earth Observation Satellite. The network strengthens the capacity of the participating countries - Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Republic of Korea, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam - to use advanced satellite remote sensing technology to monitor the environment in support of sustainable natural resource management.

The ESCAP-NASDA programme, entitled 'National capacity building for sustainable environment and natural resource management through research and studies on the use of data from Japan's Advanced Earth Observation Satellite', involved a series of meetings to transfer the necessary expertise to network members and build an infrastructure for earth observation data analysis. The third and final meeting of the principal investigators for advanced earth observation applications was held in Manila in November 1998, in conjunction with the Nineteenth Asian Conference on Remote Sensing. The meeting was organised by ESCAP in cooperation with the Science and Technology Coordinating Committee on Space Technology Applications of the Philippines, NASDA, the Remote Sensing Technology Center of Japan, and the Asian Association of Remote Sensing.

Indian cooperation with other countries in sharing satellite-generated imagery is not new. In December 1997, the Indian Department of Space and Department of Science and Technology signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on scientific cooperation in earth and atmospheric sciences. The MOU promotes the exchange of data received from India's INSAT satellites and US research and operational satellite systems. The MOU also covers cooperation in the analysis of data gathered by satellites, meteorological modelling and forecasting techniques including those related to monsoons and cyclones. A similar tripartite MOU has been signed between NASA, the Indian Space Research Organisation, and the German Aerospace Centre, designed to further cooperation among the scientists of the three countries in analysing data on the ocean and atmosphere received from German instruments flown on Indian satellites.

In 1998, the UN-affiliated Center for Space Science and Technology Education in Asia-Pacific (CSSTE-AP), established in India in 1995, concluded an agreement with the government in New Delhi to help UN member states build indigenous capabilities in the space sciences. So far, almost a hundred students from many countries have benefited from CSSTE-AP courses.

The Pakistani Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO) was established in 1961. SUPARCO is active in the use of satellite imagery for natural resource surveys. For example, its scientists have participated in international efforts to map wetlands in the Indus Delta.3 SUPARCO is responsible for Pakistan's BADR series of satellites. The first of these, BADR-1, was launched on a Chinese Long March 2-E launch vehicle in 1990. The second, BADR-2, is expected to be launched on a Russian rocket in the near future. SUPARCO also plays a leading role in the Inter-Islamic Network on Space Sciences and Technology (ISNET)4, established by the 5th Islamic Summit in Kuwait in January 1987.

Although India and Pakistan are cooperating with other countries in the use of space technologies for remote sensing, there are also limited opportunities for their mutual engagement. For example, UN programmes such as those of ESCAP and NASDA involve both states and could thus form useful starting points. There are also possibilities for third countries working independently with both states to encourage greater space cooperation.

The United States is particularly well-positioned to play a role in encouraging Indian and Pakistani cooperation in the use of space-based remote sensing data. NASA has separate agreements with both the Indian National Remote Sensing Agency of the Indian Department of Space and SUPARCO, both of which operate International Ground Stations to receive, archive and process real-time data from the LANDSAT-7 satellite. The Ground Stations send service requests to schedule data transmission to their stations and supply metadata to NASA in return. These cooperative arrangements between NASA and Indian and Pakistani space agencies make it possible to conceive of NASA convening a joint workshop with NRSA and SUPARCO to discuss greater cooperation in South Asia on the use of LANDSAT-7 data.

An excellent framework for South Asian cooperation is provided by the South Asia Cooperative Environment Programme (SACEP)5, established through the initiative of the United Nations Environment Programme-Regional Office of Asia Programmes and consisting of Afghanistan (not an active member), Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. SACEP has been designated as the Secretariat for the implementation of the South Asian Seas Action Plan, one of the key elements of which is to encourage collaboration among regional scientists and technicians and their institutions through the "establishment of a coordinated regional marine pollution monitoring program, based on intercomparable methods, for the study of the various processes occurring in the coastal areas and open ocean of the region and the assessment of the sources and levels of pollutants and their effects on marine life and human health."6 The Action Plan, in effect, promotes Indian and Pakistani sharing of environmental release and effluent data on the Tarapur Atomic Power Station (TAPS) and the Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (KANUPP), nuclear power plants, operating under IAEA safeguards, discharging their effluents in coastal regions.

SACEP is also managing a project called the SACEP Environment and Natural Resources Information Center (SENRIC)7, another possible forum for fostering greater South Asian cooperation in the sharing and analyses of satellite-based remote sensing data. One specific project that could be considered under the Center's auspices, for example, could involve assessing the environmental impact of coastal nuclear power plants, i.e. the effect of thermal effluents, using remotely sensed data.

Benefits of Indian and Pakistani Cooperative Projects at TAPS and KANUPP

It can be argued that projects involving the analyses of commercial satellite imagery are not cooperative in their essential nature, but rather more akin to the use of unilateral national technical means. However, as India and Pakistan each possess fairly well-developed infrastructures for the analyses of remote sensing data, and are certainly independently assessing remotely sensed data on each other's nuclear facilities, cooperation in this area has value in increasing the transparency of each other's capabilities. Given the increasing awareness of once-secret nuclear facilities through the open publication of high-resolution satellite imagery, there is an obvious incentive for the two governments to be prepared to counter any misperceptions caused by such imagery, especially in times of crisis.

The specific projects suggested here also have inherent environmental benefits. As mentioned, TAPS and KANUPP are nuclear facilities located in ecologically fragile coastal regions. The IAEA's Marine Environmental Laboratory has conducted surveys in the northern Arabian Sea on Cesium-137 levels in sediments and found slightly elevated concentrations.8 Scientists from India and Pakistan have presented information on radioactive waste management at TAPS and KANUPP at various IAEA conferences.9 Analyses of thermal imagery of the effluents from these facilities will help define coastal zones within which ecological impact studies could begin.10 Once zones of maximum impact are established, the projects could progress to the sharing of existing data on the fate and transport of radionuclides released from the facilities. This step could lead to each country independently collecting new data using standardised protocols, and then to the sharing of this data. Finally, the two countries could begin collecting data cooperatively, using sensors and telemetry for real-time data sharing.

Summary and Conclusions

In this paper, remote sensing projects have been proposed that could serve to increase nuclear transparency between India and Pakistan. Regional cooperation agreements have been identified that provide a framework for initiating discussion between the two countries on conducting the proposed projects.

The UN has developed principles to encourage regional cooperation in the establishment and operation of collection, storage, processing, and interpretation facilities for remote sensing data. India and Pakistan participate in various UN programs as well as in other groupings of countries that involve cooperation in the use of satellite imagery. NASA's current agreements with both countries on sharing data from LANDSAT-7 provide an opportunity to convene a South Asian workshop on better utilisation of the data. Projects could also build on the regional environmental cooperation agreements of SACEP.

Nuclear transparency between India and Pakistan provides a secure context of trust and predictability, hopefully contributing to broader progress in reducing military tensions and improving political relations. Transparency also increases the irreversibility of nuclear agreements and creates a potential for additional agreements. Unconstrained opacity could lead to misperceptions, especially as the public availability of high-resolution commercial satellite imagery increases. To minimise the risks of misinterpretation, increase nuclear stability in times of crises, and ensure the effective management and resolution of crises, cooperative projects enhancing transparency must be fostered and developed.

Notes and References

1. International Atomic Energy Agency, Annual Report 1997-98 (1999), http://www.iaea.or.at/worldatom/inforesource/annual/anrep97/sfgds.html.

2. UN Institute of Disarmament Research and the Cooperative Monitoring Center, 1999, Workshop Report, 'The Potential Uses of Commercial Satellite Imagery in the Middle East', UNIDIR/99/13, Printed at United Nations, Geneva, GE 99-03910.

3. Raouf, A., and Juerg Lichtenegger, 1997, "Integrated Use of SAR and Optical Data for Coastal Zone Management", available on Earthnet Online, a service provided by the European Space Agency, at http://florence.ers-symposium.org/data/lichtenegg/index.htm.

4. The ISNET web site is at http://www.angelfire.com/in/ISNET/. ISNET member states include Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Jordan, Syria, Bangladesh, Bahrain, Brunei, Kuwait, Senegal and Cameroon.

5. SACEP came into existence in February 1981 at a meeting of the Environment Ministers of the member countries with the adoption of the Colombo Declaration and the Programme's Articles of Association.

6. Rajen, G., 1999, 'Cooperative Environmental Monitoring in the Coastal Regions of India and Pakistan', Occasional Paper, Sandia National Laboratories, SAND-95-0515/11.

7. For more information, contact Mr. Pradyumna Kumar Kotta, Project Coordinator, SENRIC, e-mail: pk_sacep@eureka.lk.

8. International Atomic Energy Agency, Marine Environmental Laboratory, http://www.iaea.or.at/monaco/.

9. See, for example, Tahir, T.B., and Q. Ali, 'Radioactive Waste Management at KANUPP', Paper IAEA-SM-357/85P, IAEA International Symposium on Technologies for the Management of Radioactive Waste from Nuclear Power Plants and Back End Nuclear Fuel Cycle Activities, August 30-September 3, 1999, Taejon, Republic of Korea; and Patel, B., M.C. Balani, S. Patel, V.K. Panday, and S.D. Soman, 'Impact of Thermal and Radioactive Effluents on a Tropical Nearshore Ecosystem', Proceedings, Combined Effects of Radioactive Chemical and Thermal Releases to the Environment, Stockholm June 2-5, 1975, published by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna., pp. 17-33.

10. These zones would relate to the areas of maximum thermal impact. Chemical and radiological release zones would not correspond precisely to these thermal impact zones. However, the thermal impact zones form a suitable basis to define areas in which extensive studies could begin.

Gaurav Rajen is Research Associate Professor at the Department of Civil Engineering, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA. This paper is the second in a three-part series exploring different options for nuclear confidence-building and transparency measures in South Asia. The first paper in the series, co-written with Kent Biringer and entitled 'Nuclear-Related Agreements and Cooperation in South Asia', appeared in Disarmament Diplomacy No. 55 (March 2001). The third paper, outlining proposals for monitoring the environmental impact of uranium mining in India, will appear in a future issue.

© 2002 The Acronym Institute.