Declassification and release of archive documents from the United States today, shows that Taiwan attempted to build nuclear weapons, despite government denials and US government opposition.
These formerly confidential files detail how the US State Department used its diplomatic influence and intelligence sources to promote non-proliferation and halt Taiwan's secretive nuclear weapons program.
But what the US government failed to do, the evidence suggests, was stop Taiwan from giving up entirely its ambition and ability to develop weapons of mass destruction.
SOURCE: THE ATOMIC ENERGY COUNCIL
The story begins in 1964, after China conducted its first nuclear test. Shortly afterward, Taiwan launched its own nuclear weapons program, dubbed the "Hsinchu Project."
There is contention over who was the principal figure behind the programme. Wu Ta-you (
This view was contradicted by National Taiwan University professor of history, Hsu Cho-yun, in a 1966 interview at the US Embassy in Taipei, who said Chiang Kai-shek was the motivating force.
"At the direction of President Chiang, the Chungshan Institute of Science and Technology, which superintends science research and development for the Ministry of National Defense, is continuing to push ahead with its program of developing an atomic weapon."
The quest for friends
Hsu said that Taiwan had difficulty finding nuclear materials for its research and its plans were often blocked.
Initially Taiwan asked the US and Israel for assistance, but the US flatly refused and Israel had its own security problems. Japan was approached but "reacted negatively, as it does to any effort to involve it in the development of nuclear weapons," an embassy document reported.
When Taiwan tried to buy a 50 megawatt heavy water nuclear power plant from the Federal Republic of Germany-based power company Siemens in 1967, the US issued a caution.
Nevertheless, that same year, the US' General Electric Corporation began construction of Taiwan's first nuclear power plant in the northeast part of the island.
Victor Cheng (
The US government later consented to support the sale of the German reactor, so that it would not appear to be contradicting itself and the reputation of the International Atomic Energy Agency to uphold safety standards.
"In view of unequivocal US statements of confidence in IAEA safeguard systems and US assurance to FRG [Federal Republic of Germany] that IAEA safeguards would not hinder German sales of nuclear equipment for peaceful purposes, the Department does not consider we should attempt to forestall sale through approach to either Siemens or FRG."
However, the telegram to the US embassy in Bonn added: "The Department (of state) intends to furnish FRG through other channels USG [US government] information on GRC purchase of Siemens reactor ... we are not yet convinced that purpose motivating GRC desire to buy Siemens reactor is unrelated to interest in nuclear weapons."
Intelligence information confirming this suspicion did get to the State Department, in December 1972, but by this time Taiwan's position in the international arena was already beginning to fade due to the emergence of China.
In 1971 Taiwan was pushed out of the United Nations and its continued participation in international organizations like IEAE was threatened.
After Taiwan lost its membership in the IEAE, a bilateral agreement with the United States -- which had backed efforts to build all three of the island's nuclear power plants -- continued to ensure that safety standards were being met.
"We recently learned that the ROC is considering the purchase of the essential parts for nuclear materials and reprocessing plant from commercial sources in the FRG. Such a plant reprocesses spent reactor cores and also produces significant quantities of plutonium, an essential component of nuclear weapons," a Dec. 14, 1972 memorandum said.
Cheng was advised of the US concern and "described the proposed reprocessing plant as a small scale laboratory exercise designed to develop experience in the reprocessing field," the memorandum added.
Cheng further downplayed the matter, saying the facilities would cost US$250,000 and would be used to reprocess small amounts of spent reactor cores on an "experimental basis."
The US immediately pointed out to Taiwan that, according to the IEAE, strict standards had to be enforced for such a transfer to take place and that, in principle, the IEAE opposed the transfer of reprocessing plants to a "non-nuclear weapons state."
The US then began plying pressure on Germany and other countries that would be involved in the process. The IEAE board of governors in China also said they would not approve of the transfer.
In January 1973, US Embassy officials in Taiwan spoke to the foreign minister and urged him not to go ahead with the purchase.
The foreign minister, Shen Chang-huan (
Shen denied the idea of building a reprocessing plant had been approved by Taiwan's government, and did not tell the US that Taiwan had already signed a contract with a German firm to purchase the reprocessing plant.
The US confronted Shen over the matter, after which he told the US embassy that Taiwan would not be involved in the construction of a reprocessing plant, a February, 1973, memorandum confirms.
The US continued to monitor Taiwan's attempts to go ahead and construct a reprocessing facility on its own, but documents do not detail how Taiwan achieved this feat.
According to research by David Albright and Corey Gay, published in a "Bulletin of Atomic Scientists" article, entitled "Taiwan Nuclear Nightmare Averted," Taiwan continued on its own.
Their findings show that Taiwan began work in 1969 on uranium fuel, a reprocessing facility, and a plutonium chemistry laboratory.
These facilities were built with the help of equipment from France, Germany, the US and other countries, the article said.
From 1972 to 1974 Taiwan purchased about 100 metric tons of South African uranium, it said. It was also discovered that in 1970 a "Hot Laboratory" was being built and was expected to be completed in 1976.
Cheng, the AEC's secretary-general claimed the lab could only produce about 15 grams of plutonium a year, far short of that needed for a nuclear weapon, the article said.
The CIA concluded in 1974 that "Taipei conducts its small nuclear program with a weapon option clearly in mind, and it will be in a position to fabricate a nuclear device after five years or so," Albright and Gay wrote.
Under increasing international pressure on Sept. 14, 1976, Chiang Ching-kuo, then premier, said Taiwan would not engage in any reprocessing activities. That was not, however, the case.
It wasn't until over 10 years later, however, after the defection of a locally-recruited Central Intelligence agent, that Taiwan's program was brought to a halt.
Colonel Chang Hsien-yi (
Taiwan's official position since then has been that it will not use its scientific abilities to build nuclear weapons. But experts note that if Taiwan wanted to it could develop these weapons quickly, possibly within a year.
China conducts its first
Local sources let US know
that Taiwan is pursuing a
nuclear weapons program
Taiwan plans to purchase a
Siemens in West Germany. The
US tries to block the sale then
backs down but retains
suspicions that Taiwan has
Taiwan begins work on a
ROC is pushed out of the
United Nations by the People's
Republic of China
The US State Department
learns that Taiwan intends to
purchase equipment for a
reprocessing plant from West
After pressure from the US,
Taiwan's foreign minister says
the reprocessing plant will
not be built
Reprocessing plant is
believed to be finished.
Premier Chiang Ching-kuo says
Taiwan will not engage in any
activities related to reprocessing
US switches diplomatic
ties to China
Deputy Director of nuclear
research, Chang Hsien-yi, flees
Taiwan handing over reams of
information to US officials
Taiwan puts to rest its ambitions
to build nuclear weapons
Taiwan puts to rest its ambitions to build nuclear weapons
SCHEDULE: The delegation is due to meet with President Tsai Ing-wen this morning and witness the signing of an MOU on bilateral health cooperation in the afternoon US Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Alex Azar yesterday arrived in Taipei aboard a US government plane at the head of a delegation that is the highest-level visit by a US official since Washington switched diplomatic recognition to China in 1979. Azar’s flight landed at Taipei International Airport (Songshan airport) at 4:48pm, nearly one hour earlier than scheduled, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said. The apron where it landed is reserved for military aircraft, the Songshan Air Force Base Command said. The members of Azar’s delegation included HHS Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Robert Kadlec, HHS Chief of Staff Brian
ALEX AZAR: The first visit by a head of the Department of Health and Human Services would strictly observe the CECC’s special regulations, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said US Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Alex Azar is to lead a delegation to Taiwan — the highest-level visit by a US Cabinet official since the two sides cut formal relations in 1979. The plan was announced yesterday morning by the US Department of Health and Human Services and confirmed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). Beijing has expressed its concerns to Washington, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Wang Wenbin (汪文斌) said later yesterday. Taiwan and the US only issued statements saying that the visit would happen “in the coming days.” MOFA said that due to security concerns, it would
‘CROSS-STRAIT CONSIDERATIONS’: Groups said that the Ministry of Education’s policies excluded Chinese and students should not be blocked over political issues The Taiwan International Student Movement yesterday said it would protest today outside the Ministry of Education in Taipei against a policy that excludes some Chinese students from returning to Taiwan amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Since June 17, the ministry has allowed foreign students from 19 “low risk” and “medium-low risk” countries and regions to enter Taiwan. On July 22, it announced that it was relaxing restrictions to include students from all countries and regions who are graduating this semester and on Wednesday it further expanded entry to students enrolled in degree programs. A letter sent by the ministry on Wednesday to universities did
The military last week sent “no small number” of Marine Corps officers to the Pratas Islands (Dongsha Island, 東沙群島) following reports of a Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) drill targeting the islands scheduled for this month. In an interview with Hong Kong’s Bauhinia Magazine published on Saturday last week, PLA National Defense University professor Li Daguang (李大光) confirmed that the Chinese army was planning to stage a simulated invasion of the Pratas Islands in the South China Sea this month. The islands comprise three atolls, with Pratas Island, at 1.74km2, being the largest. They lie southwest of Taiwan proper in the South