Jeffrey LewisPierre Noir

An IAEA inspector, Okseok Seo of South Korea, has died in an auto accident near Arak in Iran. (If you search the transliteration used by the Iranians, Seo Ok-seok, you’ll just get news stories relating the auto accident.)

Accidents, of course, happen.  Given that many people in Iran and elsewhere believe that there is a campaign to murder Iranian scientists associated with the nuclear and missile programs, however, suspicious minds will wonder whether this accident is some form of retribution — either directly or perhaps the indirect result of overaggressive security types.

We don’t know that.  We simply have to wait patiently for more information.  Obviously, I would expect an enormous amount of scrutiny.

Perhaps to avoid jumping to conclusions about the case of Okseok Seo, I want to discuss a mystery that has fascinated me for the past 18 months.  I thought I would, briefly, recount the case of Pierre Noir — as far as I know, the only other on-the-job fatality involving an IAEA inspector.

Larry Scheinman, a national treasure, told me a story last year about Pierre Noir, an IAEA inspector of French nationality who was electrocuted during a visit in Taiwan in 1979 or 1980.  I became interested and started asking around.  A few other colleagues mentioned hearing the story, although the details differ.  Noir may have stepped on a live wire or been working on a piece of video equipment when he lost his life.  He may have been removed to a US navy vessel for treatment, where the doctors were not able to save him.  Yet hard, documented details remain elusive.

Some people, I notice, remain very suspicious about the circumstances surrounding Noir’s death.  Taiwan, after all, had a nuclear weapons program in the 1970s and 1980s, as David Albright and Corey Hinderstein (nee Gay) detail in Nuclear Nightmare Averted.   Inspectors from the IAEA, like Noir, played a central role in discovering several irregularities at the Taiwan Research Reactor — including an unsafeguarded exit port in the fuel pond — that strongly suggested Taiwan intended to divert fuel for a nuclear weapons program. Declassified documents from this period, available from the National Security Archive, show how the US used the IAEA revelations to put the screws to Taiwan to end (sort of ) its covert nuclear weapons program.  There is no evidence that I know of suggesting foul-play in Noir’s accident, but the surrounding circumstances are more than sufficient to plot a novel soaked with international intrigue.  It isn’t surprising, I suppose, that plenty of people still wonder what happened to Pierre Noir was an accident or not.

Unfortunately, as I say, I’ve come up zeros in documenting any of this.  I’ve been able to determine that Pierre Noir existed.  That’s not much, but it is something.  (I had my doubts — the name is just too good to be true.) I’ve heard the story a few times, but what I really want to do is ask you dear readers to help out.

It will be some time before we know more about the circumstances surrounding the death of Okseok Seo, but in the current media environment, he is unlikely to be forgotten — as Pierre Noir appears to have been.


  1. Karl (History)

    A few years ago, while having a beer with friends sitting outside a convenient store in Seoul (totally legal), I actually met Mr. Seo. He came over and introduced himself and we invited him to sit down. As we all talked he began to tell us about what he did. Meeting someone with a job like his randomly on the street certainly sticks with you. I only met him once, but he was clearly a man who loved his job. Having been so long ago, I hadn’t thought about him in quite some time, but was definitely saddened to see this story come up in the news.

  2. Mark Lincoln (History)

    No doubt we shall hear many conspiracy theories over the next few days.

    Conspiracies so vast (to quote Joe McCarthy) involving Mossad, VEVAK and Obama shall proliferate.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Yeah, I know. My preference is to keep this threat about Pierre Noir, not an open thread on recent events.

  3. M Harries (History)

    There seems to be a file for ‘Noir, Pierre’ in the records of the Nuclear Control Institue:

    • Jeffrey (History)

      We need to get the file! Or, rather, we will get that file.

  4. Mark Lincoln (History)

    The fate, in the distant past, of a minor IAEA official, is nothing compared to the elimination of the last republican in the senate who was not a mortal enemy of arms control.

    Citizens United ensures that the US Government will soon be utterly opposed to the concept and practice of arms control.

  5. jeannick (History)

    Tried a bit of a search , Zip
    it sis somewhat complicated by the fact that there is a rich abundance of Pierre ( stone ) and noir ( adjective)

    The IAEA site even give some crap on the philosophical stone but nothing on one of their departed inspector ,
    which seems weird .

    Why would an electrocuted man be rushed to a U.S. navy vessel ??!!
    Cardiac pulmonary resuscitation is the only remedy and the victim is either dead or quite fine in a few minutes

    • George William Herbert (History)

      CPR doesn’t restart a heart except in extremely lucky circumstances. You usually need a defibrillator for that.

      It’s been a few years, but the advanced first aid / first responder CPR course instructors are pretty explicit on this point: If you’re doing real CPR heart compressions, the person is dead, and you’re attempting to maintain at just barely dead long enough and with little enough brain damage to get a defib and get them alive again. But 80% of the people in that condition who need extended CPR are not going to make it. They tell you this so you don’t break down too badly when you have to do it and most of the patients don’t make it.

      I don’t know for sure, but I can hypothesize that a 1979/1980 era Taiwan facility might not have defibrillators lying around. It might have been faster, if they had a US ship nearby in technical assistance to the inspection team, to get him on a helicopter and out to the ship than to drive him by ambulance down to a hospital.

      This is just speculation, I have no information beyond what’s been posted and linked here.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Another version is that a US Navy doctor was asked to examine the body. I tried a FOIA request on that aspect of the story, but got nothing.

  6. yousaf (History)

    I presume no relation to Garrison Keillor’s Inspector Noir.

    • Cameron (History)

      His long lost son perhaps, hard boiled tec’s like Guy Noir always have a case in France. And there’s always a dame involved.

      I couldn’t find anything on Pierre however.

  7. rba (History)

    I don’t know the circumstances around the accident that took Okseok Seo’s life but Iran’s infamous for traffic fatalities.

  8. Mohammad (History)

    As a slightly relevant note, it may be helpful to mention that Iran is one of the more dangerous countries for car travelers. Looking at WHO data, it seems that Iran’s roads are the 11th most deadly in the world, based on estimated road traffic death rate per 100,000 population. Nearly 23000 people are reported to have been died because of car accidents in Iran in the last year.

    If there were country-wide road-mileage data available, and if we could estimate how many man-kilometers IAEA inspectors spend on Iran roads (perhaps considering the nuclear facilities they visit), it would be interesting to estimate the probability of IAEA inspectors being killed in car crashes in Iran.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Yes, one of the many reasons we should avoid jumping to conclusions.

      After some informal conversations, I am surprised that the IAEA has neither a more formal safety culture nor suffered more fatal accidents.

  9. Matt (History)

    Found in “The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA): improving safeguards : hearings before the Subcommittees on International Security and Scientific Affairs and on International Economic Policy and Trade of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, Ninety-seventh Congress, second session, March 3 and 18, 1982.”

    It quotes a Baltimore Sun article from July 28 or 31 (dates given inconsistently), 1981.


    The inspector died, that much is certain.

    The American doctor who observed the autopsy in Taiwan is sure he died of a heart attack. The International Atomic Energy Agency is adamant that he was electrocuted.

    Pierre Noir was found dead, whatever the cause, at a troubling time at a nuclear power plant at a troubling place. Because of the way it reacted, the IAEA caused its staff to wonder how hard the agency tried to learn what happened, and how much it really wants to know about the plants it inspects.

    “It has all the ingredients of a thriller behind it,” says Leslie Thome, the IAEA official who investigated Mr. Noir’s perplexing death in 1978, an event the agency has never publicly disclosed.

    His death helps feed a melodramatic theory about how the IAEA’s safeguards system will work in a crisis. Critics of the agency worry that if an inspector comes across evidence of a secret weapons program, the inspector will be killed and his death made to look like an accident.

    “Imagine the incentive not to find something,” says Paul Leventhal, who has investigated Mr. Noir’s death and is head of the Nuclear Club, Inc., a Washington organization in favor of stricter proliferation controls. “Even if Noir’s death is totally innocent, it shows inspectors are highly vulnerable.”

    His death raised questions in the agency and in Washington largely because Taiwan already had been the scene of a major nuclear controversy. In 1976, Taiwan established a small laboratory for reprocessing work, the process by which plutonium suitable for weapons or reactors is recovered from used reactor fuel.

    “The United States stepped in, insisted these labs be closed,” says Mr. Thome, “and I personally remember going there to see the laboratory closed—the material was shipped away.”

    American officials were still uneasy about the Taiwanese program when Mr. Noir, a stocky, 44-year-old Frenchman, arrived in Taipei on a flight from Tokyo January 29, 1978.

    As was usual when an inspector came there, he was met at the airport by two officials from Taiwan’s atomic energy commission. They drove him to his hotel. Liu Kung-chi was one of the officials. The next morning he returned to the hotel with a camera that the IAEA had shipped earlier. Mr. Liu and Mr. Noir took the camera with them when they drove together to the Chin-sahn power plant.

    It was supposed to be a relatively easy day. Mr. Noir supervised the installation of the camera on a fifth-floor landing until lunch. He returned to the landing at 2:10 p.m., according to a report obtained by the Nuclear Club from Taiwan’s atomic energy commission. With him were Mr. Liu and three technicians. The inspector reached for the camera to change one of the electrical cables—and this report is the only available account of what followed:

    “It was at this instant that Mr. Noir’s expression suddenly changed, both hands trembled [and] suddenly grabbed one cable. . . .” Scared to touch him, workers kicked the cable away. Mr. Liu, the report says, helped him lie down.

    When asked if he was all right, Mr. Noir opened his eyes, nodded his head but said nothing. His lips became purple. He did not arrive at a hospital until four hours later, at 6:15 p.m. He was immediately pronounced dead.

    The reaction in Vienna, says an IAEA official who knew Mr. Noir , was “a case of management falling apart.”

    Mr. Thorne, the head of safeguards for the Far East, flew to Taiwan. The American Embassy in Vienna cabled its counterpart in Taipei, saying it “would appreciate further information.”

    Cables about Mr. Noir went back and forth the next three months, until Taipei sent these messages to Vienna: “As far as the ROC [Republic of China] was concerned Noir simply suffered a heart attack and died as a result * * * [T]he question of ROC foul play seems already to have been resolved. . . .”

    Mr. Thorne says the IAEA was only too happy to accept the explanation of a heart attack. “The view of the agency at first was, ‘What has this got to do with us?’ ” He now says the heart attack idea is wrong. He says Mr. Noir was electrocuted by a faulty IAEA camera. He says the defect was entirely the fault of the agency.

    “We were able to establish quite conclusively that it was a design defect,” he says. According to the agency Mr. Noir touched a live 220-volt contact by chance, a contact that shouldn’t have been on the camera console.

    A physician at the autopsy disagrees.

    “They looked at the body for evidence of [electrical] burns—for contact—and we didn’t find anything like that,” says Dr. John J. Anderson, a former Navy pathologist asked by the U.S. Embassy to observe the autopsy in Taiwan.

    “The autopsy was consistent with death by coronary arteriosclerosis”—a thickening of the arteries and a frequent cause of heart attacks.

    Says Mr. Thorne, “It was proved absolutely conclusively that the equipment was

    • Cthippo (History)

      Based on the article matt posted it sounds like a heart attack which may have looked like electrocution to those who witnessed it.

      Consider this scenario…

      We have a 44 year old inspector who was described as “stocky” in build and who a post-mortem determined to have significant heart disease. That morning he climbed the 5 flights of stairs to install the camera, goes back down for lunch, and then climbs the same 5 flights back up to finish the job. This kind of strenuous exercise may have been enough to reduce the blood supply to the heart muscle itself which often causes the heart to twitch ineffectively, a condition called ventricular fibrillation or Vfib for short. A heart in a state of Vfib is not pumping blood effectively and the patient will rapidly lose consciousness and die within minutes. Feeling suddenly weak from the loss of effective blood flow, the inspector instinctively reaches for the closest thing, which happens to be a low voltage cable on the camera he just installed. To the others standing nearby it could well appear that he was being electrocuted by the cable, when in fact he was dying from a heart attack while leaning on an unrelated cable.

      At this point, in order to survive the patient needs an electrical shock to stop the heart in hopes that it will restart itself in a more normal rhythm. Unfortunately, in 1978 cardiac defibrillators most likely could only be found in hospitals and even there most doctors would not have been trained in their use. A plant physician, had there been one available, probably would not have had the equipment or training to re-start a heart. In addition, once the heart stops beating, irreparable brain damage begins within about 4 minutes and after 10 there is almost no chance of survival except in very rare circumstances.

      There are of course an infinite number of possible conspiracy theories, but a 44 year old guy with heart disease (even if undiagnosed and asymptomatic)dropping dead suddenly after climbing 5 flights of stairs doesn’t sound unreasonable.

  10. Denis (History)

    The most important clue: “. . . a camera that the IAEA had shipped earlier.”

    Shipped to whom? Was in the possession of whom? Was converted to a 220v. booby trap by whom? Who was it that would not want such a camera installed? Was the camera returned to IAEA? Was it ever made functional to watch those Taiwanese guys?

    Second most important clue: The way Liu and the three technicians all stepped back about 3 feet as Noir reached for the camera.

    Seriously, I’m not sure I get the picture. If the camera was wired and hot and he reached to change a cable, why would there would be a live cable for the guys to kick away? If he had an MI, what has the cable got to do with it? Just a coincidence that the guy had an MI where there was a hot cable on the ground? I mean the whole kicking the cable thing viz a viz the MI autopsy and there being no evidence of electrocution ain’t addin’ up.

    Who provided this description of what happened? Liu? We need to depose him. . .

    BTW, to go way off topic, does anyone have any insight as to all these rumors circulating that the US was shipping spent Pu rods to Japan and the Daiichi reactor is loaded with Pu?

  11. jeannick (History)

    ..The always present risk of paranoia when dealing
    with secretive affairs .

    Georges Herbert is perfectly right on the dubious use of CPR

    electrocution doesn’t need a lot of current , 50 milli-Amps would do it ,
    so there doesn’t need to be trace of burns

    I’m not familiar with the earthing system in Taiwan
    It would be too silly to have the active crossed with the earthing

    The symptoms given by the witnesses would be for a massive coronary failure ,the autopsy doesn’t seems very conclusive