US government accuses Hinkley point partner of nuclear espionage

Major partners in the controversial nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point have been accused in American courts of attempting to steal US nuclear technology.

CGI view of Hinkley Point C (Source: EDF Energy)
CGI view of Hinkley Point C (Source: EDF Energy)

Fears over Chinese involvement in a new nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point have been reinforced as a major partner in the plant's development has been accused by the US government of nuclear espionage.

Szuhsiung Ho, an advisor to the state-owned China General Nuclear Power (CGN) company, which would have a 33 percent stake in the new plant at Hinkley, has been charged with “conspiracy to unlawfully engage and participate in the production and development of special nuclear material outside the United States”.

Essentially, the US Department of Justice has accused Szuhsiung Ho, otherwise known as Allen Ho, of trying to steal US nuclear technology.

Ho, under orders from CGN, is supposed to have tried to get US nuclear experts to help develop nuclear material in China. According to a statement released by the DoJ, for nearly 20 years, between 1997 and 2016,  Ho “identified, recruited and executed contracts with US-based experts from the civil nuclear industry who provided technical assistance related to the development and production of special nuclear material”.

Of particular interest to Ho and his co-conspirators was assistance with CGN's programmes on small modular reactors, advanced fuel assembly and fixed in-core detectors.

If one is to act as an agent of a foreign power within the United States, their status must be declared to the US attorney general. Not only did Ho not do this but explicitly told those he was trying to recruit that he was acting on behalf of the Chinese state. The DoJ records him as telling his potential recruits that he was working surreptitiously to help China “to design their Nuclear Instrumentation System independently and manufacture them independently”.

None of the accusations have yet been proven but the charges could carry a sentence of life and a US$250,000 (£192,000) fine.

The case is being pursued by a number of US law enforcement agencies including the Department of Energy - National Nuclear Security Administration and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Executive assistant director of the FBI's national security branch Michael Steinbach said in a statement, “The arrest and indictment in this case send an important message to the US nuclear community that foreign entities want the information you possess”.

“The federal government has regulations in place to oversee civil nuclear cooperation, and if those authorities are circumvented, this can result in significant damage to our national security. The US will use all of its law enforcement tools to stop those who try to steal US nuclear technology and expertise.”

The Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant has been a point of international contention, reaching fever pitch in only the last few weeks. China's involvement is of specific concern to some, and senior figures within the UK military and intelligence establishments have supposedly warned ministers that giving China a big stake in British nuclear power poses ‘a threat to national security'.

However, experts from the UK's cyber-security community told SCMagazineUK.com earlier this week that it was misguided to be overly concerned about Chinese involvement when there were many other cyber risks to consider.

Prime Minister Theresa May delayed development of the plant earlier this week, raising the ire of Chinese officials. Writing in the Financial Times, China's UK ambassador, Liu Xiaoming, said that backing down on the multi-billion pound project threatens confidence between the two countries.

“The China-UK relationship is at a crucial historical juncture,” wrote Xiaoming, “Mutual trust should be treasured even more. I hope the UK will keep its door open to China and that the British government will continue to support Hinkley Point — and come to a decision as soon as possible so that the project can proceed smoothly.”