In a case that sounds like the plot of an espionage novel, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in China was indicted last week on charges of illegally sharing information on commercial nuclear reactors with a major Chinese nuclear power company. The nuclear engineer, Szuhsiung “Allen” Ho, recruited a ring of nuclear engineers—unnamed in the indictment—to “unlawfully engage and participate in the production and development of special nuclear material outside the United States” and to help develop China General Nuclear Power Company’s ACPR-100, a small modular reactor design, and provide computer codes for modeling reactor operations. The engineers, one of whom was a senior manager at the Tennessee Valley Authority, were paid by China General, through Ho, according to the indictment, but it is not clear whether they understood that Ho was breaking the law.
The charges come just two weeks after the White House hosted a summit on nuclear security that was attended by Chinese head of state Xi Jinping.
“Budget is no issue,” Ho wrote to one of the engineers in an e-mail quoted in the indictment. China General Nuclear Power is also charged, along with Ho, with violating the Atomic Energy Act. The illegal technology transfers allegedly went on for nearly two decades.
Many of the details of this extraordinary case, including just how the U.S. Department of Justice plans to prosecute a Chinese company, are not yet clear. Two aspects, however, are worth highlighting. First, as Bloomberg points out, China General is a state-owned corporation and a key player in China’s drive to become a leading supplier of nuclear reactors and components around the world. China General recently established a joint venture with China National Nuclear Corporation, another state-owned enterprise, to build at least 30 Hualong One reactors, a home-grown design, in Asia and Europe.
Secondly, the charges against Ho and China General come even as the U.S. Department of Energy is actively collaborating with the Chinese Academy of Science on advanced reactor designs. Ho’s activities were unauthorized and, as such, illegal. But it’s important to note that even as the U.S. government is prosecuting a citizen for conspiring to “secure an advantage to the People’s Republic of China,” another federal agency is helping China’s nuclear power R&D program.