Trump Administration Order Allowed Release of High-resolution Satellite Imagery of Israeli Nuclear Facility

Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson
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A satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc. shows construction at the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center near the city of Dimona, Monday.
A satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc. shows construction at the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center near the city of Dimona, Monday.Credit: AP
Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson

High-resolution satellite imagery showing construction of a new compound at Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona published on Thursday was released by virtue a U.S. administrative order that went into effect in July during Former President Donald Trump's tenure and which allowed American companies to sell much clearer and higher resolution images of Israel and the Palestinian territories than they could before.

A 1997 U.S. regulation, known as the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment, named for the two senators who sponsored it, limits commercial satellite imaging systems licensed by the federal government to providing imagery of Israel that is “no more detailed or precise than satellite imagery of Israel that is available from commercial sources.” Intended to protect Israel’s security facilities, the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment applies specifically to Israel alone and is the reason why for years, satellite maps of Israel in Google Earth had been much lower than in most other countries.

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Until July of last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a bureau within the Department of Commerce which regulates the Kyl–Bingaman Amendment restrictions, had stipulated that satellite images of Israel and the Palestinian territories used in services like Google Earth could show items no smaller than 2 meters (6.56 ft) across.

In July, finding that "satellite imagery of Israel is readily and consistently available from non–U.S. commercial sources at a resolution of 0.4 meters," the NOAA updated the resolution limit, changing it from 2 meters to 0.4 meters. The change was spurred on by researchers who in 2017 asked the agency to re–examine the resoution limit on the grounds that a South Korean company was already selling higher resolution imagery and that American companies should therefore also be authorized to sell images with similar resolution quality.

The administrative order is what enabled The Associated Press news agency to publish the new satellite imagery of the Dimona reactor, which was captured Monday by Planet Labs, a company founded by a former NASA scientist, after a request made by the AP. These photos were taken with a 0.5-meter resolution, slightly lower than the new allowed limit. Further high-resolution photos of Israel are expected to be released soon.

According to the AP, the imagery shows that the Dimona reactor is undergoing what appears to be its biggest construction project in decades. The image captured by Planet Labs came after the International Panel on Fissile Materials at Princeton University noted it had seen “significant new construction” at the site via commercially available satellite photos, though few details could be made out.

The satellite images captured by Planet Labs provide the clearest view yet of the activity, according to the AP, but what the construction is for, however, remains unclear. The Israeli government did not respond to detailed questions from the AP about the work. Under its policy of nuclear ambiguity, Israel neither confirms nor denies having atomic weapons. It is among just four countries that have never joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty, a landmark international accord meant to stop the spread of nuclear arms.

The construction comes as Israel – under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – maintains its scathing criticism of Iran's nuclear program, which remains under the watch of United Nations inspectors unlike its own. That has renewed calls among experts for Israel to publicly declare details of its program.

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