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Tuesday, March 9, 1999 Published at 03:29 GMT

World: Americas

Nuclear spy suspect fired

The world's first atomic weapons were developed at Los Alamos

A Chinese American nuclear scientist has been dismissed on suspicion of spying for China in the 1980s in what intelligence officials say could be the most serious spying case in a generation.

BBC's Paul Reynolds: Timing of the action is interesting
The official announcement was made by the US Secretary for Energy, Bill Richardson, who did not name the scientist although American television stations have identified him as Wen Ho Lee.

The scientist worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, a federal facility at the centre of US nuclear weapons development. He recently failed a lie detector test as part of a three-year investigation into the alleged disclosure of sensitive nuclear missile technology to China in the mid-1980s.

Miniature warheads

Initially the suspect was moved from working on classified material to a less sensitive post and then more recently had his security clearance suspended before being fired. He has not been arrested or charged.

US intelligence believes China received documents which allowed it to develop miniature nuclear devices to used in multiple warhead missiles. The information is thought to have saved China 15 years of research effort.

The timing of the action has been questioned as it comes hard on the heels of a story in Sunday's New York Times that China obtained secrets some years ago.

China has denied the allegations, blaming the reports on groups working against the interests of the two countries.

The BBC's Washington Correspondent, Paul Reynolds, says the fact that the man has not been arrested or charged with any offence indicates the authorities may have limited evidence of wrongdoing.

Investigation criticised

Republican senators have also stepped up the pressure recently with claims that the Clinton administration knew about the leak three years ago and was slow to respond.

Our correspondent says this dismissal may be designed to show a degree of toughness, but as for the secrets, the damage appears to have been done already.

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