Jeffrey LewisPierre Noir, Again

About a year ago, I wrote about the case of Pierre Noir, the first IAEA inspector to die on the job.  Noir died of a heart attack while inspecting a nuclear reactor in Taiwan on January 30, 1978.  I am teaching that episode in class today.

Last year, I was able to hunt down — with the help of a reader and a great research assistant — some declassified documents relating to the case that Paul Levanthal had obtained.  The file was donated to the University of Texas after Leventhal’s death.

We now have even more documents, which add an interesting twist to the story: There was, in fact, an allegation of foul play, though no one seemed to think it credible.

After obtaining the original file last year, I noted that:

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.

I was critical of the conspiratorial nature of the coverage, noting that the documents in Leventhal’s possession were dry, dry, dry.  A man with a heart condition over-exerted himself at work, dropped dead and then bureaucrats start fussing about insurance payments.  Still, I remained interested enough that I asked our super-GRA Catherine Dill has FOIA’d the cables for clean copies.

Those arrived a while back and they contained a little surprise. (The documents are available here.) An IAEA inspector sent to Taiwan immediately after Noir’s death, a Briton named Leslie Thorne, told the then-US Embassy in Taipei that someone slipped a note under his door claiming that Noir’s death was no accident!


Well, that explains the suspicious minds.  I should state that Thorne’s name is redacted from this cable, but another cable explains that he was the IAEA inspector “in touch” with Mr. Simmons and yet another cable only partially redacted his name — leaving just a hint of the cross bar from the “T” visible.  (Jonathan Ray caught that one.)  And Thorne was not shy describing his role in heading to Taipei following Noir’s death, granting an interview to the Baltimore Sun a few years later.

Now, neither Thorne nor Mr. Simmons believed the note to be credible.  No one believed that the electrocution was deliberate. In his comments to the Baltimore Sun, Thorne made clear that he believed the issue was a faulty camera:

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.

I can’t blame the guy for wanting to make sure Noir’s family was compensated.  I’ve tried to find Thorne, who stayed with the IAEA through the UNSCOM experience, but haven’t had much luck.

So, why the fake note?  One possibility is that someone wanted to discourage IAEA inspectors from doing their job — after all, the IAEA had discovered an unsafeguarded exit port that the Taiwanese had secretly arranged to be built in the spent fuel pond.  (This would allow Taiwan to secretly remove fuel rods without detection by the IAEA.) Maybe someone thought Pierre Noir’s death might be useful in discouraging other IAEA inspectors from looking too closely at Taiwan’s nuclear activities. I’ve been thinking for a while about how how the IAEA might do better to ensure the safety of its inspectors.  Accidents do happen, but the IAEA needs to make sure those inspectors feel safe enough to do their job.  After all, our conversation on this blog about Pierre Noir started with the accidental death of an IAEA inspector, this time in Iran. Iran and the IAEA have sparred over who gets to conduct inspections, so the issue is not completely hypothetical from an inspector’s point of view. Even vague, empty threats might have an effect on an inspector.  “Nice little commute you’ve got to the VIC …” might be enough to do it.

I have had a few conversations in Vienna and Monterey about this issue.  While I think the IAEA takes the safety of its inspectors very seriously, it does seem to me that there might be some benefit in undertaking a broader effort to think systematically about what programs would be necessary to create the best possible safety culture at the IAEA.  That might be a fitting memorial to Pierre Noir and  Seo Ok-seok.


  1. Rene (History)

    OK, after flaunting Monterey at our envious face again I have to tell you that you should absolutely try the Afghan restaurant close to the aquarium in case you haven’t; don’t remember the name, but the best Afghan cuisine I’ve had. And yes, I’ve been to Fremont!

    • George William Herbert (History)

      I can never remember its name but I concur on that Afghan restaurant, up on… (google maps) Lighthouse?

    • Rene (History)

      Yes, that’s the one! It may be “Amir’s Grill and bar,” since the Yelp descriptions match my experience.

  2. Cthippo (History)

    If he’s going to keep going on about Monterrey, we at least deserve a video of Jeffrey trying to surf!

  3. A Complete Stranger (History)

    You captured the essence of the UN’s regard for individual human life with the “What does this have to do with us?” comment. Since you are interested in improving UN inspector safety, you might want to investigate the death of the UNMOVIC inspector in Iraq.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Names and dates help. It took a long damn time to find the stuff on Pierre Noir.

  4. Not A Wonk (History)

    I previously noted your earlier entries about the death of the IAEA Inspector in Iran, especially his country of orgin, South Korea. Yesterday, after reading further posts, I realized that I knew Mr. Seo and considered him a friend. He was the “Facility Officer” for the application of international safeguards to US excess fissile material at the Rocky Flats Plant, where I was the programmatic host. He was warm, friendly, and very understanding of domestic requirements that impacted his activities (mainly by making everything take longer). I am very sad about his passing. He had a wife and at least one young child when I worked with him.