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.