215. Editorial Note

During the fall of 1968, U.S. and South Vietnamese officials discussed the fate of a nuclear reactor located at Dalat. In a memorandum to Secretary of Defense Clifford, his Assistant for Atomic Energy, Carl Walske, warned of the possibility that this reactor could become a target for the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army. He specifically noted:

“It is certainly possible that the enemy could (a) destroy the reactor and its irradiated fuel with conventional explosives, thus spreading radioactive contamination around the blast area, or (b) in the extreme, steal the fuel with its enriched uranium. The true significance in this case would be minor, but the claim of a ‘nuclear incident’ might be quite important from a public relations point of view. In real terms, however, the contaminated area in the case of a destruction with conventional explosives would be limited and could be dealt with by standard remedial procedures. Again, the amount of enriched uranium lost if there was a theft would not be militarily significant, i.e. enough for an atomic bomb.” (Johnson Library, Clark Clifford Papers, Memoranda—Miscellaneous)

Subsequently, it was agreed to shut down the reactor. In telegram 243817 to Saigon, the Department requested Embassy comment as to whether it would be more advisable to move the fuel elements to a safe storage site outside of Vietnam rather than retain them in-country, even though the rods were leased to the Vietnamese Government. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967-69, POL 27 VIET S) In telegram 38881 from Saigon, September 27, Ambassador Bunker insisted that the South Vietnamese had always been assured that the reactor rods would remain in Vietnam. Noting that General Abrams shared his views, Bunker advised:

“In suggesting deactivation of the Dalat reactor, it was most important that we avoid any implication that we entertained doubts concerning either the short or long-term security situation in South Vietnam as a whole. Aside from the reflection on our own ability to hold off the enemy, it was important to avoid to the maximum extent possible the lowering of GVN prestige among its own people and internationally as a result of any eventual public knowledge that deactivation of the reactor had been considered necessary. Since we have already led the GVN to believe we were not proposing removal of the rods from Vietnam, and since we have already engaged in considerable planning of our joint effort to effect removal from Dalat to a secure location in Saigon, I believe that for us now to suggest that it might be preferable to move them outside Vietnam would most certainly be interpreted as a vote of no confidence in the GVN and the future of SVN. It would raise among Vietnamese, both in the government and among the public when word of the removal gets out, serious doubts regarding our determination to continue to support SVN.” (Ibid.)

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In a November 12 memorandum to Deputy Secretary of Defense Nitze, Warnke reported on new recommendations from the Embassy. Rather than proceeding with in-country storage, the Embassy and MACV now contended that deactivation was no longer necessary on the grounds of security. They proposed to inform the GVN of this assessment but to offer to deactivate the reactor if the GVN deemed it necessary. (Washington National Records Center, Department of Defense, OASD/ISA Files: FRC 330 72 A 1498, OASD-ISA, Vietnam 381—May 1968) According to a notation on this memorandum, Nitze approved the termination of the deactivation program.