LIVERMORE, Calif. -- Chinese scientists have built and tested a nuclear "neutron bomb" using secrets stolen from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, according to sources familiar with an FBI espionage investigation.
The Chinese exploded a neutron bomb -- a battlefield weapon designed to kill soldiers with radiation but not destroy nearby structures -- on Sept. 29, 1988, according to published reports.
Details of how China acquired the secret information are classified. But an official familiar with the case said lax security at the Livermore nuclear weapons lab, where U.S. neutron bombs were designed, was partly to blame.
The official said that "the total, complete lack of management oversight" was "absolutely devastating."
Ed Appel, the head of counterintelligence in the FBI's San Francisco office, confirmed that the bureau has conducted an espionage investigation at the lab and that no arrests have been made. He wouldn't discuss the probe's subject matter.
Mr. Appel did say, however, "You could make the logical assumption that there have been successful espionage attempts against the [Livermore] lab since its inception."
The espionage, according to lab sources, took place before 1987.
The Livermore lab has not been completely closed to Chinese scientists, in part because it conducts research on a wide spectrum of non-classified subjects.
China has the most aggressive espionage program now in operation against the United States, according to Mr. Appel. It has targeted commercial technology as well as military and political secrets.
The espionage is conducted not only by professional spies but also by visiting Chinese students and scientists, who may play on the sympathies of their Chinese-American hosts, he said.
The Americans are told that "Mother China needs assistance to become modern" and that nuclear weapons offer China a chance to stave off a Soviet threat while it develops, Mr. Appel said.
"I'm more afraid of a visiting physicist than I am an intelligence agent," he said. "I worry about the scientist who shares his formula with the other guy because they have a wink, a smile and a handshake, or they're going to save the world together."
In 1988, the General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress, reported that foreign intelligence agents posing as visiting scientists had gained access to Livermore and the other two U.S. nuclear weapons design laboratories.
The GAO said that dozens of Chinese had visited Livermore without a required background check and that some were later found to have links to Chinese intelligence services.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations has been quietly gathering information about the espionage case since 1988.
In addition to the United States, France and the Soviet Union have developed neutron bombs.
Despite the name, the nuclear explosive isn't a bomb at all. It was designed in two forms: a nuclear artillery shell and the warhead for the short-range Lance missile.
Several experts said that the theoretical basis for a neutron bomb is not difficult. If the Chinese had a need for stolen information, they said, it would be for the nuts-and-bolts procedures of how to fabricate the parts.
Development of a U.S. bomb was made public in 1977, and a heated debate ensued over its deployment.
The Pentagon described it as a deterrent against Soviet attack, while its opponents said that its advantages ("limited" damage) over other nuclear weapons would lead to its use and that an all-out nuclear war would follow.
President Jimmy Carter decided to allow components of the bomb to be produced but not assembled. President Ronald Reagan ordered production to begin soon after he took office in 1981. Neutron artillery shells were built but have been kept in storage in the United States.