Monday, February 06, 2006

http://www.sundayherald.com/53945
Sunday Herald - 05 February 2006

UK's secret nuclear sites exposed online
By Rob Edwards, Environment Editor

DOWNLOADING satellite images of top-secret nuclear weapons sites using a new piece of Google software could breach the government’s strict anti-terrorism laws, experts claim.
Over the past few months high- resolution aerial photographs of large areas of the Earth’s surface have become available to anyone with broadband and a computer. All they need is a copy of Google Earth, a remarkable global mapping programme being given away by the $129 billion internet company.

The software enables online computer users anywhere to access and view graphic images from around the world. But nuclear specialists are worried that it could be used by terrorists to pinpoint potential targets at some of Britain’s most sensitive military sites.

Using Google Earth, the Sunday Herald was able zoom in on defunct nuclear submarines at Rosyth in Fife, and scour almost all the facilities at Faslane on the Clyde, home to the submarines that carry Trident warheads. The UK’s nuclear bomb bunkers and factories at Burghfield and Aldermaston in Berkshire were clearly visible.

“I’m astonished, to be honest,” said John Large, an independent nuclear consultant. “I think this would be a great aid to terrorists because it gives much more detail than you can get by buying a map or driving past.”

Large argued that if he referred clients to the Google Earth images of nuclear sites, he could be in breach of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, which made it a crime punishable by up to seven years in prison to disclose any information “which might prejudice the security of any nuclear site”.

He said: “You are not allowed to take photographs of military bases but now, with this software, you can peer straight into them. It’s incredible.”

The satellite photos clearly show the seven old nuclear submarines at Rosyth naval base as well as other shoreside facilities. Barracks, fuel depots and jetties are all visible at Faslane. The most sensitive parts of Britain’s two most secretive nuclear sites – Burghfield and Aldermaston – can be seen in great detail. From a few hundred feet up, users can view bomb storage bunkers and count cars outside buildings where bombs are made and refurbished.

As well as the military nuclear sites, Google Earth enables users to see civil nuclear power stations like Hunterston, Torness and Dounreay in Scotland. But the satellite pictures available are of a much lower resolution and become blurred below 20,000 feet.

But there is a crystal-clear photograph of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, scene of the United States’ most serious nuclear accident in 1979.

“If Osama bin Laden had broadband in his cave in Afghanistan he could be using Google Earth right now to plan a detailed attack on Faslane,” said Dr Richard Dixon, the director of WWF Scotland. “As the data on the site improves he will no doubt be interested to browse past Torness, Hunterston, Dounreay, Coulport and Chapelcross. This shows the vulnerability of our nuclear sites, with so much dangerous material concentrated in one spot.”

Dixon was opposed to any move to censor the information. “If it is not on Google Earth, it will almost certainly be available somewhere on the web,” he argued.

John Ainslie, co-ordinator of the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, said the images’ unprecedented detail would be of value to anti-nuclear campaigners . “Unfortunately they could also be misused by anyone who was planning a terrorist attack,” he said. “The government’s approach to secrecy is all wrong. They keep secret political plans for the future of British nuclear weapons, while close-up aerial photos of Aldermaston are freely available.”

Google said the satellite images were available from many sources and had helped fight forest fires and provide relief from natural disasters. “We believe that the benefits of access to the information provided by Google Earth for such valuable purposes are greater than any negatives from potential abuse,” said a company spokeswoman.

“Google takes governmental concerns about Google Earth and Google Maps very seriously. We welcome dialogue with governments and authorities about any concerns they may have.”

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) insisted that it didn’t see Google Earth as a security risk. Some of the pictures were out of date and much of the information was available on maps.

“The MoD has no objection to sites being shown, and we have no control over satellite images,” said a spokes woman. “We don’t have a problem with it.”
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