U.S. used Cold War-era statute to prosecute Taiwanese American nuclear engineer
By Ellen Nakashima and Steven Mufson
Jan 6 2017
A Taiwanese American nuclear engineer pleaded guilty Friday to one count of conspiring to produce “special nuclear material,” in this case plutonium, outside the United States without a license from the secretary of energy.
The prosecution of Szuhsiung “Allen” Ho and a colleague marks the first time the Justice Department has brought cases under a 1946 Cold War-era proliferation statute.
As part of the plea agreement, prosecutors will drop charges that Ho, who owns a consulting business in the field of commercial nuclear energy, intended to illegally help China and that he acted as a foreign agent. That means Ho, 66 and a naturalized citizen born in Taiwan, no longer faces a potential life sentence but a maximum of 10 years in prison.
Nuclear energy experts say they are baffled that the government pursued the case at all. They say that the government is taking an old statute meant to discourage the spread of nuclear weapons and is applying it to an export licensing matter involving commercial reactor technology used around the world — activity that had nothing to do with bombmaking.
“To make this a case about getting plutonium for bombs is a wild overstretch, and a pretty astonishing display of Department of Energy and State Department hypocrisy,” said Victor Gilinsky, a physicist and independent consultant who served two terms on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “We urge everybody to build reactors, and we sell reactors. All uranium-fueled reactors make plutonium — even commercial reactors. So if Ho is engaged in a conspiracy to produce bomb-usable plutonium in China, his co-conspirators are DOE and State — and the White House.”
But the government insists that Ho endangered national security.
“It’s a very serious case no matter how insignificant the defense may allude to the technology involved here,” said Charles E. Atchley Jr., an assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Tennessee, in a June hearing. “The defendant in this case is charged with procuring and helping to obtain on behalf of the Chinese government technology that it is not allowed to have.”
Ho’s case follows several prosecutions of Chinese American scientists who were accused of sharing U.S. technology secrets with China, but whose cases collapsed. Two of those cases, involving a Temple University professor and a National Weather Service hydrologist, were handled by defense attorney Peter Zeidenberg, who is also representing Ho.