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
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
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
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