Allen Ho is accused of luring nuclear experts in the U.S. into providing information to allow China to develop nuclear material based on American technology. Ho is a naturalized U.S. citizen.
USA TODAY NETWORK

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — An engineer working as an operative for the Chinese government in a bid to use American know-how to beef up China’s nuclear program pleaded guilty Friday in the first-of-its-kind prosecution in the nation.

Szuhsiung “Allen” Ho confessed Friday in U.S. District Court in the nation’s first case of nuclear espionage involving China.

In a plea deal struck that Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Atchley Jr. and Ho’s defense team struck, Ho is being allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge and will be sentenced under a terrorism statute dubbed the Freedom Act of 2015. The maximum sentence is 20 years.

To keep that deal, Ho must tell the government everything he knows about China and its nuclear program. Chief U.S. District Judge Tom Varlan set a May 17 sentencing hearing.

Ho’s plea is considered key to gathering intelligence on the inner workings of China’s nuclear program — both the one used to power homes and the one to make war — in a case in which the Chinese government refuses to even acknowledge the indictment of its own nuclear power company.

Ho, his firm Energy Technology International, and Chinese nuclear power plant China General Nuclear Power were indicted in April in an alleged plot to lure nuclear experts in the United States into providing information to allow China to develop and produce nuclear material based on American technology and below the radar of the U.S. government.

It is the first such case in the nation brought under a provision of law that regulates the sharing of U.S. nuclear technology with certain countries deemed too untrustworthy to see it. Those countries include China.

Although the technology is used for nuclear-power generation, the by-product of that process can be used to produce nuclear weapons.

The investigation began at the behest of the Tennessee Valley Authority Office of the Inspector General, which contacted the FBI with concerns about one of TVA’s senior executives, engineer Ching Huey, who later admitted that Ho, and by extension the Chinese government, paid him to supply information about nuclear power production. He even traveled to China on the Chinese government’s dime.

Huey agreed to cooperate in the probe and has since struck a plea deal.

Ho is a Taiwan native who became a naturalized U.S. citizen. Atchley repeatedly insisted in court that the Chinese government had paid Ho millions for his alleged spy work.

Ho worked for the Chinese government and lived in China most of the time, Atchley alleged.

Ho’s defense team, including Knoxville lawyer Wade Davies, wrangled in plea negotiations to get Ho’s position on why he was involved in the plot.

They won: The plea deal said Ho wanted to make money and was only trying to help speed up and make cheaper nuclear energy in China by using American technology and expertise.

Follow Jamie Satterfield on Twitter: @jamiescoop

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