Scientists at America’s top nuclear lab were recruited by China to design missiles and drones, report says

At least 154 Chinese scientists who worked on government-sponsored research at the U.S.’s foremost national security laboratory over the last two decades have been recruited to do scientific work in China — some of which helped advance military technology that threatens American national security — according to a new private intelligence report obtained by NBC News.

The report, by Strider Technologies, describes what it calls a systemic effort by the government of China to place Chinese scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where nuclear weapons were first developed.

Many of the scientists were later lured back to China to help make advances in such technologies as deep-earth-penetrating warheads, hypersonic missiles, quiet submarines and drones, according to the report.

Scientists were paid as much as $1 million through participation in Chinese government “talent programs,” which are designed to recruit Chinese scientists to return to China. Such talent programs have long been identified as a source of concern, but U.S. officials said they had not previously seen an unclassified report that described the phenomenon in such detail, naming specific scientists and the projects they have worked on.

The talent transfer “poses a direct threat to U.S. national security,” said Greg Levesque, a co-founder of Strider and the lead author of the report. “China is playing a game that we are not prepared for, and we need to really begin to mobilize.”

Although a former Los Alamos scientist pleaded guilty in 2020 to lying about his involvement in a China recruitment program, most of the conduct described in the report appears to have been legal. Moreover, U.S. officials and experts say most Chinese scientists who immigrate to the U.S. remain here — and many have made significant contributions to U.S. defense technology.

But current and former U.S. intelligence officials said the Strider report shows how the Chinese government has been using talent recruitment programs to acquire insights into U.S. technology to help build a military that poses a significant threat to U.S. national security. The officials added that China’s hard-line turn under President Xi Jinping is sparking a re-evaluation of the long history of scientific exchange between the two countries.

“We have benefited enormously from the inflow of Chinese talent,” said Robert Daly, a China expert at the Wilson Center, a congressionally chartered nonpartisan research institute. “And I hope that we can continue to do that — it’s essential to the United States. But China is now developing weapons systems, capabilities, doctrines and, frankly, attitudes toward its own power that means we have to go back to the drawing board in some of these areas.”

In 2019, a bipartisan Senate report said China’s Thousand Talents Program and similar arrangements were a vector for China to exploit U.S. research.

“Through talent recruitment programs like the Thousand Talents, China pays scientists at American universities to secretly bring our knowledge and innovation back to China — including valuable, federally funded research,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a speech in 2020. “To put it bluntly, this means American taxpayers are effectively footing the bill for China’s own technological development.”

Los Alamos, where the atomic bomb was developed during World War II, is devoted to science and engineering in support of U.S. national security. But much of the research there is unclassified, and many foreign scientists work at the lab.

Workers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (Los Alamos National Laboratory via AP file)
Workers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (Los Alamos National Laboratory via AP file)

Los Alamos officials referred questions to the Energy Department, which declined to address the report’s specific findings.

The Energy Department said in a statement to NBC News that America's "national security and defense require fierce protection of critical technology development, even as we safeguard the open science research that underwrites the United States’ technology leadership.

"In response to growing research security threats, the Department of Energy has taken significant steps in recent years, including the adoption of rigorous vetting, counterintelligence reviews, and restrictions on participation in foreign talent programs," the agency added. "The Department of Energy also implements procedures to ensure compliance with U.S. export licensing requirements, including those governing the release of controlled technology to foreign nationals in the United States."

The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

The Strider report says that in 2019 the Energy Department adopted a rule prohibiting employees and contractors from participating in talent programs linked to China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. The rule appears to have reduced the brain drain, the report says.

The Justice Department in 2018 launched what it called the China Initiative, an effort to thwart China from stealing cutting-edge research. A series of cases blew up amid allegations of racial profiling, and the Justice Department abandoned the initiative last year. National security officials say the threat from Chinese espionage — and legal acquisition by China of U.S. intellectual property — persists, however.

Bill Evanina, who worked from 2014 to 2021 as the top counterintelligence official in the U.S. government, said he has seen many classified reports over the years documenting the problem of technology transfer through talent-poaching.

However, he said, “this is the first time where we have a comprehensive, open-source reporting that identifies the people, the places, the services and the organizations in China who are benefiting from that talent who once worked here at national labs.”

Evanina and other officials said Los Alamos is by no means an outlier — China is recruiting scientists at other national labs and major research centers across the U.S.

Citing public information posted on websites in the U.S. and China, the report includes specific information about a number of scientists.

For instance, according to the report, Zhao Yusheng received nearly $20 million in U.S. taxpayer grants during an 18-year career at Los Alamos, where he held a top-secret Q clearance and led a defense project developing bombs that can penetrate deep underground.

Then, in 2016, Zhao joined a talent program, Strider found, and left the U.S. for a job at a research center in China. The report notes that before that, while he was at Los Alamos, he hired another Chinese scientist who worked with him on the bomb research. That scientist filed a patent in China in 2007 for an “ultra thick penetrating warhead,” according to the report.

Zhao is now a vice president at China’s Southern University of Science and Technology, known as SUStech, which conducts defense research. He did not respond to requests for comment.

"The correct number of Chinese or Russian citizens at our weapon labs should be zero," said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee. "We cannot turn a blind eye to the vulnerable position the U.S. is put in when foreign adversaries are able to access critical U.S. technologies."

The Strider report found that 15 Los Alamos veterans work at SUStech, including the president, Chen Shiyi, who made major contributions to China’s hypersonic missile program. Chen did not respond to emails.

“No one can say this is not a national security issue,” Evanina said. “Because from hypersonics to acoustical capabilities and to warheads, we are perpetrating the ability for adversaries to utilize weapons against us. And that is hard for any American to swallow.”

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