Catalytic Diplomacy

Note to Blowing the Whistle

History of Taiwan’s Interest in Nuclear Weapons

In general, there was ample history of Taiwanese interest in nuclear weapons to support a concern.

Taiwan had started thinking about nuclear weapons in 1964 after the Chinese tested a nuclear weapon. It developed the Chungshan Institute of Science and Technology (CIST) and purchased a heavy-water reactor, a heavy-water production plant, and a plutonium separation plant. This is where the work on the bomb had taken place.

At the same site, it developed the Institute of Nuclear Energy Research (INER), some 43 kilometers southwest of Taipei inside a shared security perimeter. This is where the plutonium was produced.

By 1974, the CIA was onto what was happening. It cultivated a spy who rose to be deputy director of the enterprise and then, in 1987, defected to the United States. The defector, Colonel Chang Hsien-yi, former deputy director of INER, left with reams of documents. President Ronald Reagan warned David Dean, AIT ambassador, to put a stop to this activity within a week or not to come back.

In 1995, after the PRC fired missiles in the direction of Taiwan to discourage the 1996 Taiwanese election, President Lee Teng-hui suggested that the program be revived. Days later, no doubt under pressure, he said Taiwan would “definitely not” resume such work, but in fact he may have left the door open.

According to a report from Hong Kong's Ta Kung Pao of December 29, 1999, “In the wake of nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan in 1998, Lee ordered both the defense ministry and the academy of sciences to set up a group for guiding Taiwan’s study of atomic bombs with a view to accelerating the evaluation, research and development process of nuclear weapons.” (FBIS-CHi-20000113)

The background showed that, in 1974, Taiwan was “five years away” from a bomb, according to the CIA. By 1976 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was saying that Taiwan could be secretly reprocessing plutonium-laden fuel rods and that, in addition, it could make plutonium metal from ingredients supplied by the United States. Inspectors found a trapdoor at INER through which Taiwan could divert fuel rods from the research reactor into a weapons program. But then–President Chiang Ching-kuo merely continued the program under still greater secrecy.

By 1987, when the program was stopped a second time, some believed that Taiwan was perhaps “just a year or two away” from a bomb. (And this appears to be still true today according to some observers.) In addition, James Lilley said in 1997 that Taiwan could build a bomb “within a year” if it wanted.

On January 5, 2000, former Chief of General Staff Hau Pei-tsun revealed details in a diary. He said that by January 1988, when Chang, the defector, fled, Taiwan had achieved a “controlled nuclear test reaction”—the last step before producing nuclear weapons.

Hau wrote, “That a small number of scientists won’t give up their achievements is natural and not necessarily incompatible with our non-nuclear policy. Really, do we have to kill these scientists before America will be put at ease?” He thought unofficial research was continuing. But fear that the CIA had other moles planted finally put an end to official activities.

United Daily News said that the new revelations were only “the tip of the iceberg.” In 1990, a government auditor fended off another government auditor, saying that Chungshan Institute’s budget was secret because it was “involved in making atomic bombs.”

The Economist reported that Taiwan was planning to fit a nuclear warhead on its Skyhorse ballistic missile, which has a range of 1,000 kilometers.

An excellent relevant article, “Taiwan: Nuclear Nightmare Averted” by David Albright and Corey Gay, appeared in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Lai I-chung (January/February 1998, vol. 54, no. 1)

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