Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) Nuclear Program commended UCSB undergraduate Laura Harrison last month after she uncovered several of China’s nuclear facilities.
The fourth-year geography major discovered the Chinese facilities by analyzing high-resolution satellite images using geographic information systems (GIS) while interning with NRDC in Fall 2005. Harrison identified an underground coastal submarine tunnel north of Quindao, China, as well as a submarine later recognized by NRDC as China’s only ballistic nuclear submarine.
According to its website, the NRDC is an environmental action organization composed of nearly 1.2 million scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists.
Harrison said she was responsible for analyzing satellite images of China, marking suspicious objects in the photographs and then comparing the dimensions of these objects with the dimensions of previously identified military structures. In addition to the submarine facilities, she said she found the locations of possible airplane hangers and nuclear bunkers.
“At the navy base, I saw an obvious water entrance to an underground facility, as well as other entrances from land,” she said.
Harrison said she got the internship at NRDC through the UCDC program, working 32 hours per week and earning a salary of $1,000 a month. The UCDC program allows UC students to gain internship experience for academic credit in Washington, D.C.
Harrison said she worked on the NRDC’s nuclear nonproliferation system to open communication between countries with the hope of reducing the risk of nuclear war.
“The more people know, the less rash decisions can be made,” Harrison said. “Basically, spreading information is going to help people make better decisions regarding nuclear growth and weapon use.”
By analyzing satellite images, the NRDC hopes to assess China’s threat level and make the information available to the public, Harrison said. She said the United States has over 10,000 nuclear weapons, while China has 400.
“It can scare you, or you can be realistic about it and say they are going to build up nuclear power,” Harrison said. “But we don’t know much about China because they are so secretive.”
UCSB Geography Dept. Chair Keith Clarke said GIS programs are essential because they are used to influence military policy, as well as help in sighting and map production.
“It is better to have open access so more public agencies know about nuclear proliferation,” Clarke said. “There is nothing you can do to stop a satellite from passing over your territory.”
In the past, Harrison said, the NRDC has used GIS to survey North Korea’s nuclear programs. She said the NRDC decided to analyze data from China because of its rising power in the global economy, and wants the public to better understand the country’s military intentions.
“China is modernizing, and it’s expected they would because their economy supports it,” Harrison said. “We need to be careful in the decisions we make and the policies our government makes toward other countries. The U.S and China are major world powers. It could get scary if we aren’t smart about how we react to things.”