Jeffrey LewisPierre Noir Revisited

After I blogged about Pierre Noir — the IAEA official who died in 1978 during an inspection in Taiwan (formally, the Republic of China) — Matthew Harries noted that the papers of the Nuclear Control Institute, housed at the University of Texas, contain a Pierre Noir file.

So, I requested a copy — and although some of the documents are in fragments and the researcher might have made an effort to photograph the documents correctly — there are more than enough answers.

“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,” I wrote last week.

Perhaps the surrounding circumstances might inspire a good book, but the author will have to take some liberties.  Pierre Noir’s death is not mysterious. He had a heart condition. It doesn’t really matter whether he over-exerted himself or received a small shock from a faulty camera, something caused his failing heart to give out. You might as well blame  his diet and exercise. Instead of a cache of documents revealing some sinister intrigue, the file contains a series of bureaucratic documents describing the last day of Noir’s life, his poor health and the administrative inconvenience caused by his death.

The file constains the late Paul Leventhal’s FOIA-related correspondence relating to Noir’s death, as well as the following documents:

1. Pierre Noir’s autopsy report from Taiwan,

2. A memorandum for the record by the Navy pathologist who witnessed the autopsy at the request of the Taiwan Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the IAEA,

3. The first page of an accident report prepared by ROC officials (one of the State cables references an English language translation passed to the US embassy on 14 Feb by Dr. Victor Cheng, then Secretary General of the ROC AEC);

4. Leventhal’s handwritten notes indicating that the “IAEA found defect in cable inducing 110-220 volt shock; something to injure a healthy person, but may kill someone with heart condition.”

(Items 1-4 are available in a single file.)

5. A number of declassified State Department cables, including from the US embassy in Taiwan back when we had one, reporting on various aspects of the incident.

Our super-GRA Catherine Dill has FOIA’d the cables for clean copies and will try to get a full copy of the ROC report that Cheng passed to the USG. There is also, apparently, an IAEA report out there somewhere.

But even from these fragmentary documents, a relatively straightforward account emerges. Piere Noir had a heart condition. If he received a shock while handling an IAEA camera — and the evidence for that is circumstantial — it was not the sort of shock that would kill a healthy person. But Pierre Noir was not a healthy person.

Overall, the file provides the same account detailed in the Baltimore Sun (“Mystery Surrounds On the Job Death of Nuclear Inspector, July 28, 1981). It is possible that Leventhal was the source of the documents quoted in the Sun.  Still, there is an important difference. Where the Baltimore Sun sought to imply some intrigue — calling the death mysterious, quoting an IAEA officials asserting that Noir’s death “has all the ingredients of a thriller,” and so on — the documents themselves merely detail the death of a civil servant in the sort of dry, official language of government documents the world over. This is not a novel.

In particular, the documents are incongruous with the quotation in the Sun by Levanthal:

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.”

With the benefit of the original documents — documents that Leventhal had himself — this seems rather conspiratorial. Although we are indebted to Leventhal for his determination in pursuing the case of Pierre Noir, I find it hard not think that he and others were exploiting Noir’s death for their own ends. Of course, there were good reasons to suspect that the Taiwanese were still trying to build a bomb in the early 1980s — after all, they were — but was it necessary to appropriate a man’s death to make Taipei look guilty?

Pierre Noir died with little intrigue. Just the unexpected death of one civil servant leaving other bureaucrats to complain about the resulting paperwork. I’ll leave you with the rather brutal assessment of one of the State Department cables:


Rest in peace, Pierre Louis Noir.


  1. Bradley Laing (History)

    At the time, did Tiawan’s government have a record of covert assassinations? Or a record of violent internal factionalism? Ones that would make outsiders suspicious of murder plots?

  2. Johnboy (History)

    You know, not meaning to be rude, but why is this such an important topic when the talks in Baghdad and Tehran are not even on your radar?

    After all, the IAEA and the P5+1 do appear to be talking to Iran regarding Some Serious Questions Regarding Iran’s Peaceful Intentions, and yet there appears to be no acknowledgment that those meetings are even taking place.

    Not criticizing, just…. curious, is all.

    • Anon (History)

      I noted the same thing with regret: came to this website for informed discussion on the NATO missile defense shield[sic] and whether or not Russian fears are technically right — nada. Came for info on Iran program — nada. Realize Jeffrey alone can’t cover everything but was (am) hoping some of the many bloggers on this site will cover the important arms control issues in the news from a technical/wonky perspective….sometime soon.

      Will keep checking this site, but note that other sites like nukesofhazard and armscontrolnow are also great sources for folks looking for solid commentary on arms control.

  3. jeannick (History)

    Oh well , this is interesting on its own
    if only to establish how totally obscure a case can be
    an the wild horse of paranoia is always in the race

    No sign of electrocution , that’s to be expected
    fault in the cabling get no coverage ,
    this should be easy to establish ,
    was it in the camera or the Taiwanese wiring ?
    has any precautions be taken to avoid a recurrence
    manure would hit the proverbial fan
    imagine the same incident happening in Iran !

    certainly I would agree with Anon,
    a complete analysis of Russian fears on the Missile shield is long overdue

    After all there was the very explicit concern voiced by a Russian top brass that in a threatening situation
    ( mitt Romney’s hand on the trigger ? )
    a strike on the missile shield components could be contemplated
    very dramatic !

  4. Alex W. (History)

    There is some real non-proliferation relevance here, though. In a world of suspicion, of secrecy, and of the ever difficult problem of proving a negative, there will always be abundant fodder for suspecting the worst. Sometimes the worst is true (viz. Soviet cheating on the BWC), sometimes the suspicion turns out to be totally wrong (viz. the nonexistent “mobile bioweapons facilities” in Iraq), and sometimes reality is somewhere in between (viz. the likely case for the Iranian program, not quite peaceful, not quite military).