How China got its hand on U.S. nuclear technology materials

Allen Ho infiltrated the U.S. nuclear power program over a period of 20 years and helped advance the Chinese nuclear program.

How China got its hand on U.S. nuclear technology materials
REUTERS/Michaela Rehle

The man no one has ever heard of is Allen Ho ( aka Szuhsiung Ho ). He has pleaded guilty to “conspiracy to unlawfully engage or participate in the production or development of special nuclear material outside the U.S., without the required authorization from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), in violation of the Atomic Energy Act.”

Ho, a naturalized U.S. citizen of Chinese ethnicity, was sentenced to 24 months in prison, followed by supervised release, and must pay a $20,000 fine. That's not much of a sentence when one considers the depth of his involvement in advancing the Chinese (PRC) nuclear program. 

The original indictment of Ho issued by the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Tennessee at Knoxville in April 2016, listed both Ho and China General Nuclear Power (aka China Guangdong Nuclear Power Company - CGNPC) and Energy Technology International as co-conspirators. CGNPC has not had its day in court (and is unlikely to present itself to the U.S. Federal Court. CGNPC is a state-owned enterprise within the PRC and the largest nuclear power company in the PRC).

The grand jury’s first charge dealt with the “Conspiracy to Unlawfully Engage and Participate in the Production and Development of Special Nuclear Material Outside the U.S.” The grand jury also charged Ho with “Conspiracy to Act in the United States as an Agent of a Foreign Government.”

How Ho helped the Chinese nuclear program

What exactly did Ho do on behalf of the PRC?

  • The indictment indicates from 1997 through 2016, Ho acted on behalf of the PRC government to infiltrate the U.S. nuclear research and development program. Throughout the period of time, he acted as intermediary with tasking and reporting on requests for information received from the PRC.
  • Ho, through his company Energy Technology International, would contract for the services of U.S. nuclear engineers and specialists for work, for which the result would advance China’s nuclear program.
  • In 2004, U.S. experts were contracted to travel to the PRC and to use their membership within the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) to provide restricted access documents from the EPRI library.
  • In 2009, Ho was tasked by CGNPC to “form a team to provide technology transfer in design and manufacturing, related training and technical support.” The end result of the team’s work would be to enable China to manufacture its own “Nuclear Instrumentation System.”
  • In 2012, Ho began recruiting individuals to specifically support CGNPC’s Small Modular Reactor (SMR) development.
  • Also, in 2012 and 2013, Ho was tasked with and began attempting to recruit experts for the Small Modular (Pressurized Water Reactor) Design Program a part of the larger SMR program.
  • Ho assisted the CGNPC Advanced Fuel Assembly Program.
  • Ho assisted the CGNPC Fixed In-Core Detector Program.
  • Ho provided and verified U.S. nuclear reactor-related computer codes.

The neutralization of Ho is the big counterintelligence win, and kudos go to the FBI and DOE counterintelligence professionals whose diligence turned out the lights on this river of information going to the PRC.

Need to improve insider threat program

Their identification of multiple U.S. citizen sources of information whom Ho had recruited with lucrative commercial contracts speaks to the need to enhance the insider threat program within the U.S. nuclear program.

Sadly, it also highlighted the power of the dollar and professional nose-shining when it comes to inducing an individual to make a quick dime by bending rules and access restrictions. These trusted insiders showed themselves as only too willing to participate in Ho’s activities, never mind that the information being shared was going directly to the PRC nuclear energy program.

In addition, Ho’s 20-year odyssey, whereby he was able to infiltrate the U.S. nuclear program, demonstrates the need for stringent and comprehensive background checks and ongoing testing and monitoring of individuals entrusted with access to sensitive U.S. nuclear technology.

Is the U.S. nuclear program safer with Ho’s neutralization? Absolutely.

Has the PRC curtailed its efforts to infiltrate U.S. technologies? Absolutely not.

Will this lead to all emigrants being tarred with Ho’s brush, no, but it will mean that validation of individuals with access to national secrets will require deeper scrutiny, regardless of their ethnicity.

After all, insiders are trusted, until they aren't. 

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