Undergrad Reveals Chinese Nuclear Secrets


Laura Harrison, a senior undergraduate majoring in Geography, attended a UCSB – Washington D.C. Program (UCDC) last fall as an intern with for the Nuclear Program at the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), a non-governmental organization. One of her GIS projects involved identifying nuclear facilities in China, and her work ended up on the front page of The Washington Times (Feb. 16) under the caption “Commercial photos show Chinese nuke buildup.”

“During the fall of 2005, Laura was an intern at NRDC conducting geographic information system (GIS) analysis of Chinese nuclear forces for the NRDC Nuclear Program. Using commercial satellite imagery, Laura helped us locate Chinese air and naval bases and identify aircraft and submarine types by their shapes and dimensions. She also worked on other projects at NRDC developing maps and environmental presentations. Laura was quite talented and a pleasure to work with.” – Tom Cochran, Director of NRDC’s Nuclear Program.

Laura’s work was included in an NRDC publication (Cochran, T., McKinzie, M., Norris, R., Harrison, L., and Kristensen, H. [Winter 2006]. “China’s nuclear forces: The world’s first look at China’s underground facilities for nuclear warheads,” Imaging Notes, www.imagingnotes.com), and that led to some major publicity. According to first author Thomas Cochran (Director of the Nuclear Program and Laura’s boss at NRDC), “We published some Chinese nuclear weapons related images in Imaging Notes to get a scoop and as a teaser for a longer report on the Chinese nuke program that we are currently developing. The images were picked up by the Washington Times… and printed on the front page above the fold, and this in turn was the lead article in EarlyBird (the Pentagon’s internal newsclips)… As evidenced by the Times article, our work is flushing out into the public more heretofore classified info on the Chinese Program.” The publication that Laura coauthored points out that “China is nowhere near nuclear parity with the United States, but both countries seem poised to modernize their nuclear forces with an eye to the other’s intentions and capabilities. That race, although less about numbers than capability, must be watched carefully, and remote sensing data is an invaluable tool to better understand Chinese nuclear forces and U.S. claims about their capabilities.”

As Laura puts it, “Most of the images in the articles are pieces of the satellite imagery that I analyzed. I helped find the best images to buy, then helped load them into our ArcView 3.3 project, and looked at each one in depth, marking important objects and identifying them. I looked at their spatial distribution on individual site and country scales using many methods I learned in the Geography 176 and 115 series last year. I helped find the tunnels and identified the aircraft and submarines, including the Xia Class and nearby underground facility that are such a big deal. The 2 images on the top of the front page of the Washington Times are what I cut out!!! I’m in shock.” The images that Laura alludes to are of China’s strategic nuclear submarine base north of Qingdao that contains a long-rumored but never before publicly seen underground coastal submarine tunnel, China’s only ballistic missile submarine, several strategic bombers and fighters, and a major nuclear weapons laboratory.

Below: Dotted lines indicate some of the images that Laura cut out, including those of the nuclear sub Xia and entrances to the underground sub facility that were featured in the Washington Times article.

Laura is taken aback by all the attention, but she certainly deserves it. Sean O’Connor (BS, 2005), who recently completed an internship with National Geographic, emailed our Chair the following: “I wanted to drop you a note to say hello and give you some important updates. Most notably on Laura Harrison, a gem of the UCSB undergrad program. Laura was here in the fall on the UCDC program and interned with the NRDC. She did some amazing work for them identifying nuclear facilities in China. AND!! Today her work was featured on the front page of the Washington Times!” And Robert Margolis (BS, 1987, Engineering) contacted the editor to say, “Just read the article on China’s nuclear forces and the photos showing their underground facilities. I was pleasantly surprised to see that one of the authors is a UCSB undergrad. While I did not graduate in geography, I always remember the school giving undergrads a great hands-on learning experience. Congratulations to Ms. Harrison and the UCSB Geography department.” Well, Laura is a gem—and the Department deserves to be congratulated for providing her with an ideal setting.

Some of Laura’s handiwork:Picture 1: “I used ESRI’s ArcScene to vertically extend the high resolution satellite image of Anqing North Air Base over a medium resolution elevation dataset. The green marks show the location of possible tunnel entrances under the hills and 23 Hong-6 Bombers near the airstrip.”

Picture 2: “Anqing North 3D, zoomed into possible tunnel area. Since the high res. satellite images only showed top down, using the elevation data and ArcScene allowed me to get a more realistic view and to spin the images around, which was very helpful in increasing the probability of accuracy in the identification of the entrances.”

Picture 3: “I think this picture tells a good story. Yes, the methods we used (commercial high res. imagery) allowed the public to learn more about China’s military and nuclear program than ever before known. But the images can only show one moment in time, from one angle. Here we see two complete Hong-6 Bombers and another one that is missing a tail, along with some mess to the side. So is it under construction? The mess is quite haphazard- pieces of a destroyed plane, or the result of a disorganized airbase? We just can’t know. Satellite images can be powerful, but there is definitely a limit to their usages.”

(Photos courtesy of DigitalGlobe; permission for use granted by Thomas Cochran, Director of the NRDC Nuclear Program; article by Bill Norrington)

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