The public have forgotten about Chang Hsien-yi (張憲義), who was the deputy director of the First Institute of the National Chungshan Institute of Science and Technology (CSIST) — now the Institute of Nuclear Energy Research (INER) — and who defected to the US in 1988.
However, when Taiwan Oral History Society chairman Chen Yi-shen (陳儀深) traveled to the US to interview Chang recently, it made headlines.
Most, but not all, that Chang said in the interview is the historical truth.
He said that he left “as he accepted the CIA’s demands and arrangements, and did not betray the interests of Taiwan or Taiwanese, and at most betrayed my commanding officer, Hau Pei-tsun (郝柏村).”
He also said that he “respected [then-president] Chiang Ching-kuo’s (蔣經國) instructions that we should have the ability to develop nuclear weapons, but would never produce any.”
Chiang did say that, and if Chang had been an outsider, he would surely have believed it. The problem is that he was an insider and clearly understood that Chiang’s statement was intended for those who were not.
Hau has not had a very high opinion of Taiwan’s presidents during the democratic era, but he was meek as a lamb when it came to the Chiang family.
How could it be possible that Chiang would not agree to the development of nuclear weapons, and let Hau develop them in secret?
The scale of the development was quite significant. INER, whose former parent agency, the CSIST, falls under the Ministry of National Defense, was not the only CSIST research institute involved in the development of nuclear weapons — at the time, the Third Institute was also involved.
The bottleneck was obtaining nuclear material. There are plutonium and uranium bombs. The isotope used in plutonium bombs, plutonium-239, must be extracted from spent nuclear reactor fuel, while the latter uses uranium-235, which is extracted from natural uranium, which contains uranium-235 and uranium-238. The chemical properties of the two isotopes are identical, and are difficult to separate.
At the time, the Third Institute planned to use lasers to extract uranium-235.
It has been said that Taiwan was very close to having nuclear weapons, but in fact it is a long way off. The truth was that Taiwan really wanted nuclear weapons, but did not have the R&D capability.
It was clearly not a case of, as Chiang claimed, having the ability to do so, but not actually building any nuclear arms.
The US is a nuclear superpower, but it will not allow other countries to develop their own nuclear arms. Any country that the US has in a stranglehold will listen, but those that are not dependent on the US do not care.
China and India have ignored the US and developed their own nuclear weapons. Taiwan is too dependent on the US in many ways, even on keeping nuclear power stations up and running. Uranium in its natural state contains only 0.7 percent uranium-235 and to be used in weaponry it must be enriched to 1 percent.
Taiwan Power Co has commissioned enrichment to the US, so if the US did not want to assist Taiwan, the existence of Taiwan’s nuclear power stations would be in danger.
In 1977, the US pressured Taiwan to close its nuclear energy research facilities, and following Chang’s defection in 1988, it forced Taiwan to remove the facility from the ministry and place it under the Atomic Energy Council, thus finally putting an end to Chiang’s nuclear arms dream.
Chen Mao-hsiung is a retired National Sun Yat-sen University professor and a member of the Northern Taiwan Society.
Translated by Perry Svensson
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