China May Have Stolen Nuke Secrets

March 6, 1999 - AP

NEW YORK - An investigation of nuclear secrets stolen by China from a U.S. laboratory was repeatedly slowed and played down by the federal government in favor of keeping good relations between the countries, The New York Times reported today.

China's espionage at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico in the mid-1980s helped it develop the technology to miniaturize nuclear bombs, a key step toward fielding a modern nuclear arsenal, the newspaper said.

By 1996, a year after the theft was discovered, investigators had identified a suspect working at the laboratory, where the 1940s Manhattan Project developed the first atomic bomb. The investigation also determined that China was continuing to steal nuclear weapons secrets from major American labs.

But some officials claim the government pushed aside the investigation for policy reasons, the Times reported.

"This conflicted with their China policy," said a U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity. "It undercut the administration's efforts to have a strategic partnership with the Chinese."

The White House was told of the nuclear espionage in the summer of 1997, just before a U.S.-Chinese summit meeting - the first such meeting in eight years - which was intended to highlight the improvement of relations between the Clinton administration and Beijing.

The White House claims that it took the spying seriously by ordering improved security at the labs.

But a reconstruction by the Times shows that the response to the nuclear theft was marked by delays, inaction and skepticism throughout the government - even though some senior intelligence officials believed the theft was among the most damaging cases of espionage in recent history.

Within a year of the discovery of the theft, investigators had identified the suspect working at Los Alamos. But he continued in his job with full security clearance for another year. To date, no arrests have been made.

The espionage was not detected until 1995, when American experts analyzing Chinese nuclear test results found similarities to America's most advanced miniature warhead, the W-88.

In the past, China's nuclear weapons were a generation behind American designs, largely because Beijing was unable to produce small warheads that could be launched from a single missile at multiple targets.

The W-80 warhead is 2.6 feet long and weighs about 300 pounds. Several can be fit in a single missile.

By contrast, the MK 1, the first atomic bomb - "Little Boy" - was 10.5 feet long, weighed 8,900 pounds and had to be dropped from a plane. The force of impact of the "Little Boy" was 15 kilotons, compared to the 150 kilotons of a W-80.

  • Return to Wen Ho Lee Page