Taiwan’s Former Nuclear Bomb Program Revealed
December 19, 1997
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: December 19, 1997
For Further Information Contact: David Albright at 202-547-3633 or Corey Gay at 202-547-2696
Washington – December 19 – The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) today revealed new information about Taiwan’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons through the 1980’s, and efforts by the United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to thwart Taiwan’s pursuit of the bomb. According to ISIS, the United States and the IAEA have created a powerful set of constraints on Taiwan’s nuclear program.
“These constraints remain critical today,” said ISIS President David Albright, “given the tense debate about the future status of Taiwan.” Although possession of nuclear weapons may appear attractive to some in Taiwan, acquiring them would risk a military confrontation with China, and at the same time diminish the ability of the United States to intervene on Taiwan’s behalf.
In an article entitled “Nuclear Nightmare Averted” from the current issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Albright and ISIS Policy Analyst Corey Gay offer an unprecedented examination of Taiwan’s persistent pursuit of its nuclear weapons ambitions through the late 1980s. The government secretly sought the capability to produce plutonium and turn it into metal, the main form of plutonium used in nuclear weapons. Metallic plutonium has few civil uses.
Taiwan’s program depended extensively on foreign assistance. The government sought plutonium separation and plutonium chemistry equipment from many different sources. It even acquired a small amount of separated plutonium, with which to conduct experiments, from the United States.
According to ISIS, the IAEA played a vital role in discovering the secret activities in Taiwan during the 1970s. Although safeguards agreements were in place, Taiwan volunteered little information about its plutonium facilities. As a result, the IAEA took steps to inspect all of Taiwan’s nuclear facilities in order to uncover its secret activities. The IAEA also undertook measures to make Taiwan’s program more open, including installing additional cameras at the Taiwan research reactor (TRR), examining plutonium-laden irradiated fuel from the TRR, and carefully verifying Taiwan’s declarations.
Upon learning of the IAEA’s findings, the United States took action to ensure that Taiwan could not acquire nuclear weapons. The United States imposed additional verification arrangements, insisted that Taiwan dismantle its plutonium facilities, and demanded the return of the U.S.-supplied separated plutonium. In addition, the United States launched an effort to obtain Taiwan’s permission to transport the irradiated TRR fuel to the United States for safekeeping. The United States also kept tabs on the actions of Taiwanese scientists by engaging in bilateral nuclear cooperation on permitted nuclear activities.
These constraints proved essential when, in the late 1980s, Taiwan again moved to establish a secret plutonium separation capability. U.S. action stopped these activities and led to the shutdown of the Taiwan research reactor in 1988.
In the article, Albright and Gay also tell the story Dr. Ta-you Wu, a famous physicist who, as science advisor to then-President Chiang Kai-shek, was instrumental in stopping one of Taiwan’s most direct attempts to develop nuclear weapons. Professor Wu opposed the Defense Ministry’s 1967 plan to acquire a plutonium production capability for nuclear weapons. Wu was able to convince President Chiang not to pursue this particular plan.
Wu’s advice did not come without personal costs. According to Gay, Wu was later branded a traitor by some in the military. “Dr. Wu’s role in speaking out against the Defense Ministry’s plan was brave,” Gay said.
To increase transparency, Taiwan is implementing the IAEA’s new, more effective safeguards, known as “Program 93+2.” Taiwan should be complimented and encouraged in this endeavor. But transparency could be increased considerably if Taiwan would reveal all of its past nuclear weapons activities.
“Nuclear Nightmare Averted,” can be obtained from ISIS or found in the January/February issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (http:\www.bullatomsci.org). ISIS is also willing to provide an English translation of Dr. Wu’s 1967 report to President Chiang and other supporting information.