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Satellite Imagery and the Chernobyl Incident Clara Gillispie STIA-475 Nov 13, 2006.

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Presentation on theme: "Satellite Imagery and the Chernobyl Incident Clara Gillispie STIA-475 Nov 13, 2006."— Presentation transcript:

1 Satellite Imagery and the Chernobyl Incident Clara Gillispie STIA-475 Nov 13, 2006

2 Overview On April 26, 1986, the Soviet nuclear power plant at Chernobyl suffered an explosion in reactor 4 that led to a devastating meltdown. In reaction, the government of the USSR made every attempt to limit knowledge about the scope of the catastrophe: restricted journalists’ access to Chernobyl blocked hospitals from recording causes of death that could be linked to the meltdown denied rumors about the disaster. Ultimately, however, such efforts had to be largely abandoned when a French satellite known as “Satellite Probatoire de L-Observation de la Terre” (“SPOT”) captured and disseminated images of the meltdown. By increasing the volume of information available about the Chernobyl incident, SPOT satellite imagery reshaped the context in which the Soviet Union, the West, and others could act – helping to both resolve and exacerbate problems arising from coming to terms with the disaster.

3 Satellite Imagery and the Soviet Government SPOT impacted the ways in which the Soviet Union could deal with the problem privately. Satellite imagery moved first-hand information out of the USSR and into the international arena, giving journalists, Western governments, and the IAEA credible information that directly contradicted Soviet assertions. Such information was critical, as the radiation had spread to other countries and required some kind of informed, international response. By the time the photos were released, many Western media outlets had already begun to speculate about what was going on inside of the USSR SPOT’s photos gave confirmation of the truth of the matter, while also checking some of the more exaggerated and terrifying rumors. --- One of the meltdown images captured by SPOT ---

4 Further Consequences of Dissemination SPOT’s images indirectly impacted the Soviet domestic scene, as some citizens caught wind of SPOT’s revelations from radios that were able to pick up foreign media. Combining this with the responses from the international community, complete and total denial was effectively unusable as a successful damage-control tool, pushing the Soviet Union into responding with some truths, in order to maintain their ability to spin the issue. Thus: SPOT satellite imagery not only provided answers about what was going on, but would also create a basis of understanding that would be vital to any responsive efforts from the IAEA. Closer image of the disaster (not from SPOT)

5 Impacts on Other Countries France: In revealing information about a nuclear disaster in a close neighbor, France also suggested something about their own internal ramifications, namely that if the disaster was as profound as France’s satellites suggested, then it was unlikely that none of the fallout had gone into France. By revealing these images, France’s government hurt its own damage control by undermining claims that the increase in certain types of cancers was not caused by radiation. United States: The release of SPOT’s images also created new concerns for national security. The precedent set by SPOT’s release of satellite photos implies that if a country is unable to block a foreign satellite from releasing sensitive photos, that foreign satellite could be capable of releasing almost any kind of information military base locations weapon specifications even troop movements. Key concern for other powers as well Key lessons about SPOT for other countries: 1. What your IT reveals about other countries can reveal something about you as well 2. IT can allow other countries to make determinations about your national security

6 Negative Consequences of SPOT’s images At the same time, SPOT satellite imagery also exacerbated the problem of accurately comprehending the impact of the Chernobyl crisis: Though SPOT’s images did depict what was going on at the Chernobyl power plant, these images required analysis and interpretation. Consequently, while the existence of the photos eliminated some rumors, misinterpretations of these photos added to the panic and confusion surrounding the incident, by suggesting that the disaster was more severe than it actually was. As a result, SPOT’s information was ultimately capable of sending signals that both downplayed the need for panic and increased the need to alarm.

7 Some Final Thoughts: Important Distinctions to Understand The impact that SPOT’s images were able to have was made possible by an overlap of different information technologies ex: radio and television as means of disseminating the intelligence found by SPOT The dissemination of SPOT’s images did not result in complete information about the Chernobyl disaster, nor did it force total honesty from those responding to the crisis. Even more telling, SPOT’s ability to uncover deception did keep the Soviet Union from attempting future deceptions. The information contained in the satellite images was not readily apparent It required interpretation and analysis – processes which were capable of misunderstanding the data and creating false assumptions about the crisis


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