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New Archival Evidence on Taiwanese "Nuclear Intentions", 1966-1976

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 20

Published – October 13, 1999

Edited by William Burr

For more information contact:
William Burr 202/994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu


Washington, D.C., October 13, 1999 – In recent years, India and Pakistan have made the front pages by testing nuclear weapons and defying the nuclear nonproliferation regime established by the United States and the Soviet Union and their allies during the 1960s. Nonetheless, the United States and international authorities have successfully discouraged other countries from joining the nuclear club. One such achievement (so far) has been to induce the Republic of China (ROC) to suspend activities that would brought Taiwan closer to an independent capability to produce nuclear weapons. During the late 1960s and mid-1970s, and late 1980s, the United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) actively discouraged Taiwan from acquiring critical technology for producing fissile materials. Recently declassified documents, unearthed by the National Security Archive, provide new and significant details about the earlier efforts to forestall a nuclear-armed Taiwan.

Since the 1980s, such scholars as Joseph Yager and Leonard Spector have explored the ROC's nuclear efforts and the possibility that Taiwan sought a nuclear or "near-nuclear option."1 Most recently, David Albright and Corey Gay explored the issues in their landmark 1998 article in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.2 Albright and Gay showed how, in reaction to the People's Republic of China's nuclear tests during the mid-1960s, Nationalist Chinese leaders opted for a national nuclear capability because they believed that U.S. nuclear forces could not be relied on to deter military moves from the mainland. Drawing upon interviews and recently published Taiwanese material, Albright and Gay show the key role of the ROC military in developing plans and establishing institutions to guide the development of a nuclear capability. They also identified key individuals, such as Chiang Kai-shek's science adviser Professor Ta-You Wu, who helped blunt the military's nuclear efforts. Yet, Professor Wu could not block the effort altogether and Albright and Gay show how the military-controlled Institute for Nuclear Energy Research (INER) secretly developed a small reprocessing facility (the "hot lab") and acquired a research reactor whose purposes raised questions among U.S. and other foreign government and international officials. An important part of Albright's and Gay's account was the recurring U.S. efforts to discourage the Taiwanese from developing a larger-scale reprocessing facility that could be used to produce plutonium, a major step toward a nuclear capability.

Albright and Gay take their story well into the 1980s and declassified government documentation is scarce or nonexistent on many of the important developments that they describe.  Thanks to the State Department's systematic declassification review programs, however, it is now possible to document important phases of the U.S. government efforts to regulate the ROC's nuclear efforts. This extraordinary new archival material confirms some of Albright's and Gay's findings, but it goes beyond them by adding highly significant, hitherto obscure, information to the record. Among the revelations:

  • Early contacts between ROC and Israeli nuclear experts involving a possible covert attempt by the Taiwanese to acquire nuclear weapons information.
  • ROC President Chiang Kai-shek may have been the key proponent of a nuclear capability for Taiwan.
  • Influentials beside Professor Wu opposed a Taiwanese nuclear capability; for example, Vice Minister of Defense Lt. General T'ang Chun-po, may have expressed doubts about Chiang's plans.
  • The United States intervened as early as 1966 to ensure that any nuclear reactors acquired by Taiwan included IAEA safeguards to prevent diversion of materials into nuclear weapons.
  • During 1972-1973, the United States discouraged the ROC from purchasing from West Germany a reprocessing facility that could have created the impression that Taiwan intended to acquire a nuclear capability.
  • During 1973 officials from Taiwan's nuclear energy complex privately informed U.S. diplomats about the plans for the "hot lab" located on the grounds of the Nuclear Science Institute.
  • State Department intelligence had no hard evidence that the ROC intended to develop a nuclear capability, but the situation was ambiguous enough to make key officials want to send a special study mission to Taiwan to identify the "coterie which advocates development of nuclear weapons capabilities."
  • In September 1976 the U.S. tried to extract a pledge from the ROC to forswear an independent nuclear weapons capability.

As significant as the archival material is, it raises as many questions as it answers. The inner history of the Taiwan nuclear program remains to be told. Hsu Cho-yun's claim (see Taipei airgram,  20 June 1966, below) that Chiang Kai-shek was the program's initiator may well have been correct, but more information on the role of Chiang and his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, is essential. The story of the negotiations between the ROC and Siemens, partially recounted in the documents, also needs more documentation. In addition, the various U.S. government efforts to monitor the Taiwanese nuclear program need recounting. No doubt the Central Intelligence Agency has significant documentation on nuclear developments in Taiwan, although it is unlikely that it will release the most telling information in the foreseeable future.

However much more needs to be learned, these documents provide a telling picture of U.S. nuclear nonproliferation policy at work. In particular, they offer an interesting contrast to the U.S.'s planning earlier in the 1960s to impede, even "take out," the PRC's emerging nuclear capability.  Although President Kennedy had been interested in using force against Chinese nuclear facilities, his successor, Lyndon Johnson, concluded that military force was too risky.   Johnson and his advisers would also find that that economic embargoes were unavailing when an adversary was determined to mobilize the resources needed to create a nuclear deterrent. By contrast, Taiwan was generally responsive to U.S. pressures, although Washington would have to exert them repeatedly. What made Taiwan responsive, of course, was not only that  it was a U.S. ally, it was a relatively dependent one.  Not surprisingly, Washington had substantially greater capability to discourage the nuclear ambitions of a dependent ally than it had to check those of a strong adversary.

A significant advantage that Washington had in its dealing with Taipei on nuclear issues was that the ROC was relatively transparent both to U.S. and international authorities. Both foreign government officials, e.g., West German diplomats, and elements of  the ROC elite were willing to pass on significant intelligence about Taiwan's nuclear plans  Important clandestine sources increased the degree of transparency.  One such source was the alleged Central Intelligence Agency agent, Col. Chang Hsien-yi, a key INER official, who became famous after he fled Taiwan in 1987. Whether Chang provided intelligence information relevant to the controversies of the early 1970s remains to be seen.3

As Albright and Gay suggest, U.S. pressure had a significant impact in checking Taiwanese efforts to expand reprocessing facilities, but Beijing may have thought otherwise. As one document (see document 29) suggests, Chinese diplomats privately criticized Washington for allegedly abetting Taiwan's nuclear ambitions. But the documents show that U.S. officials worked hard to dissuade Taiwan from acquiring or developing the technology that could bring it closer to an independent nuclear capability. Indeed, it was the Nixon and Ford administration's determination to forge a rapprochement with Beijing that motivated its efforts to regulate Taiwanese nuclear development.

With recent tensions in PRC-Taiwan relations, the possibility that Taiwan could make another attempt to break out of the nonproliferation regime remains a concern on the mainland. As recently as August 1998, a broadcast from Central People's Radio warned that it would be "absolutely harmful" for Taiwan to develop its own nuclear forces.4 Undoubtedly, U.S. government officials share Beijing's concerns.  If Taiwanese authorities depart from earlier agreements with the United States, Washington and the IAEA would undoubtedly renew the pressures used in the past to discourage Taiwan from developing a nuclear weapons capability. Whether such pressures would be as effective as they were in earlier years can not be easily anticipated.  In any event, with the heavy costs imposed by the tragic earthquake, the Taiwanese leadership undoubtedly sees far more urgent requirements than nuclear weapons.

 


THE DOCUMENTS


U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv, Airgram 793, 19 March 1966, "Nationalist Chinese Atomic Experts Visit Israel"

Source: National Archives, Record Group 59, Department of State Records, Subject- Numeric Files, 1964-66 (hereinafter cited as Subject-Numeric 1964-66), AE 7 Chinat

U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv, Airgram 810, 24 March 1966, "More on Nationalist Chinese Atomic Experts Visit to Israel"

Source: Subject-Numeric 1964-66, AE 7 Chinat

These items may be among the earliest indicators, so far declassified, of Taiwan's more or less covert effort to acquire nuclear weapons know-how from the Israelis. What exactly the Taiwanese wanted from the Israelis or vice versa was obscure to the reporting U.S. embassy officer, but as the airgram from 26 June 1966 (below) indicates, it became known that the Taiwanese had unsuccessfully sought to obtain nuclear materials from Israel, although whether it was during the visit reported in this message or some other contact remains to be seen.

 

U.S. Embassy Bonn, "German Nuclear Reactor for Taiwan," Cable 3000, 25 March 1966

Source: Subject-Numeric 1964-66, AE 6 Chinat

With this cable, U.S. ambassador to West Germany George McGhee reported that the Taiwanese were negotiating with the Germans to buy nuclear reactors. This effort may have been part of the $140 million nuclear weapons programs--including a plan to purchase reactors from the Siemens Company-- reported by David Albright and Corey Gay in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.  While some in the West German government wanted the sale to proceed, Foreign Ministry Officials checked with the U.S. Embassy to make sure that Washington had no objections on nuclear proliferation or other grounds.

 

U.S. Mission to the European Communities, 7 April 1966, "Possible German Reactor Export to Taiwan," cable ECBUS 898

Source: Subject-Numeric 1964-66, FSE 13 Chinat

With this message, the U.S. mission to European community recommended that the Department take a careful position on German reactor sales. As long as the Germans ensured that the reactor technology conformed with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, any U.S. interference would be interpreted by European commercial rivals in the atomic energy field as unfair competition.

 

U.S. Embassy Taipei, Airgram 813, 8 April 1966, "GRC Request to IAEA Team for Advice on Location of Reactor for Possible Use by Military Research Institute"

Source: Subject-Numeric 1964-66, FSE 13 Chinat

A suspicious request from an Taiwanese corporate official to an IAEA team on a study mission in Taiwan raised eyebrows at the U.S. embassy. The IAEA team was studying sites for two civilian atomic power reactors but an official from Taiwan Power, David S. L. Chu, asked the team to look into a site for an additional reactor, to be used as a pilot plant. When it became evident that the Taiwanese military was behind the request and that Chu would provide no further details, John McCullen, a U.S. member of the team took his concerns to the embassy.

 

U.S. Embassy Bonn, Cable 3292, 15 April 1966, "German Nuclear Reactor for Taiwan"

Source: Subject-Numeric 1964-66, AE 6 Chinat

The Bonn embassy reports on Taiwan's continuing efforts to buy atomic power reactors from the Siemens corporation. Although the West German Science Ministry wanted the sale to go through because of its commercial significance, it would not approve reactor exports unless the Taiwanese guaranteed that the reactors would not be use for military powers. Thus, the Taiwanese would have to sign a safeguards agreement with the IAEA and the U.S. government would also have to approve.

 

State Department to Embassies in Bonn and Taipei, Cable 2896, 23 April 1966

Source: Subject-Numeric 1964-66, AE 6 Chinat

Responding to the Bonn Embassy message, the State Department confirmed that any reactor sale would have to include an "unequivocal commitment" by the Republic of China that it would apply IAEA safeguards to the operation of German-produced atomic reactors. The Department also questioned any efforts to keep the transaction secret and urged that the Germans and the Taiwanese dispel suspicions by publicizing the sale and any safeguard arrangements.

 

U.S. Embassy Taipei, Airgram 1037, 20 June 1966, "Indications GRC Continues to Pursue Atomic Weaponry"

Source: Subject-Numeric 1964-66, DEF 12-1 Chinat

Thanks to a local source, the U.S. Embassy in Taipei picked up intelligence on Taiwanese interest in an independent nuclear capability. A history professor Hsu Cho-yun with good contacts in the Taiwanese national security bureaucracy reported to the embassy that President Chiang Kai-shek was the prime mover in the nuclear weapons effort. Moreover, the key organization in the weapons program was the military-controlled Chungshan Science Research Institute.  Apparently, the project met opposition from a key official, Vice Minister of Defense Lt. General T'ang Chun-po, who considered a nuclear weapons project "impractical," but Chiang insisted that it continue. Further complicating the situation was that the ROC was finding it difficult to get nuclear materials and scientific expertise as well as to develop a missile capability.

 

U.S. Embassy Taipei, Airgram 566, 21 February 1967, "GRC Plans for Purchase of 50 Megawatt Heavy Water Nuclear Power Plant", with copy of agreement between Union Industrial Research Institute and Siemens copy attached.

Source: Record Group 59, Subject-Numeric Files, 1967-69, FSE 13 Chinat

A year after the ROC began negotiating with the ROC for the purchase of a nuclear reactor, Victor Cheng, an official with the Atomic Energy Council and director of the Institute of Nuclear Science, told a U.S. embassy official that a deal was near closure. Although Cheng noted that the arrangement would include IAEA safeguards and denied any relationship between the reactor purchase and "nuclear weapons research," the Embassy was "not convinced" by the denial. It recommended that the State Department block the sale.

 

U.S. Embassy Bonn, Telegram 10709, 15 March 1967, "GRC Plans to Purchase of (sic) 50 Megawatt Heavy Water Nuclear Power Plant"

Source: Subject-Numeric Files, 1967-69, FSE 13 Chinat

Several weeks after the Embassy in Taiwan weighed in against the reactor sale, Ambassador McGhee queried the Department about its position on the sale. Noting the Taipei embassy's position, McGhee reminded the Department that it had to take into account U.S. assurances that Washington stood for peaceful uses of atomic energy under "proper safeguards."

 

State Department to Embassies Taipei and Bonn, Cable 16187, 20 March 1967

Source: Subject-Numeric 1967-69, FSE 13 Chinat

Responding fairly quickly to the query from the Bonn embassy, the Department believed that the Taiwan embassy's point about "possible weapons research" was not germane. As long as the West Germans insisted that the contract include IAEA safeguards, the United States could not block the Siemens deal in good faith. Implicitly the State Department was taking the position that it did not matter whether the ROC intended to acquire a nuclear capability because the international community could deny Taipei the resources needed to develop one, at least as long as exporters of nuclear reactors complied with IAEA requirements. The deal fell through, however, apparently because one of Chiang Kai-shek's advisers, Professor Ta-You Wu, convinced the Generalissimo that the military's nuclear weapons plan was too costly and was bound to lead to a confrontation with the United States.6

 

State Department Memorandum of Conversation, "German Inquiry Regarding Safeguards on Export of Parts to ROC Reprocessing Plant," 22 November 1972

Source: RG 59, Department of State Records, Subject-Numeric Files, 1970-1973 (hereinafter Subject-Numeric 1970-73), AE 11-2 Chinat

Between 1967 and 1972, nuclear weapons proponents inside ROC ruling councils sustained efforts to buy nuclear technology that could support a weapons effort. In 1969, they unsuccessfully tried to purchase a reprocessing facility from the United States but the Nixon administration vetoed the sale.7 That same year, however, the Canadians sold to INER a safeguarded 40-megawatt research reactor that began operating in April 1973. Moreover, the United States sold reactors for civilian power purposes. Furthermore, using equipment acquired from the United States, France, Germany, and other suppliers, the Taiwanese developed a small reprocessing facility, a plutonium chemistry laboratory, and a plant to produce uranium fuel, which could produce twice as much fuel as the research reactor needed.8

Before the research reactor became operational, the West German embassy's scientific counselor, Dr. E. Abel, informed the State Department that the ROC was engaged in discussions with a German firm about the purchase of parts for a reprocessing facility as well as its design and construction. Abel believed that the deal would be consistent with the "spirit" of West German commitments to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Exporters Committee (or Zannger Committee, named after its Swiss chairman, Claude Zannger). Abel may not have known that the ROC had already tried to buy a reprocessing plant from France but without success, possibly because the price was to high or the Foreign Ministry, under pressure from Beijing, had blocked the deal (or both).9

Significantly, Taipei's effort to expand reprocessing capabilities unfolded as Sino-American relations were normalizing, a process that included important U.S. commitments to reduce its military presence on Taiwan.   Those developments undoubtedly encouraged ROC officials to see a nuclear weapons option as all the more urgent.10

 

Memorandum from Leo J. Moser, Office of Republic of China Affairs, to Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Marshall Green, "Nuclear Materials Reprocessing Plant for ROC," 14 December 1972

Source: Subject-Numeric 1970-73, FSE 13 Chinat

Abel's disclosure about the reprocessing deal produced a sharply negative reaction in Washington and decisions to exert pressure on Bonn and Taipei to call off the deal. The basic concern was that the facility could be used to produce nuclear weapons or at least would give the impression that the ROC intended to do so. In light of the Nixon administration's efforts to put Sino-American relations on a nonconfrontational basis, a Taiwanese nuclear weapons capability would have caused serious strains in U.S.-China relations and increased the risks of a PRC confrontation with Taiwan. When speaking with ROC representatives, however, U.S. officials took a lower-key approach. For example, on 8 December, AEC officials told Victor Cheng that the U.S. advised against the sale because it was uneconomic and difficult for the IAEA to safeguard. Ever since China had joined the United Nations in 1971, the Agency was under pressure to terminate existing low-level contacts with the ROC. A reprocessing plant would require constant, high-profile IAEA inspection, possibly forcing the Agency to severe all contacts with Taiwan.

 

State Department to Embassies in Bonn, Brussels, and Taipei, "Proposed Reprocessing Plant for Republic of China," Cable 2051, 4 January 1973

Source: Subject-Numeric 1970-73, FSE 13 Chinat

With this message, the State Department began formally to weigh in against the proposed ROC-West German reprocessing deal by instructing the ambassadors in Belgium, West German, and the Republic of China to make "formal representations" against the deal. But to avoid a wholly negative position, the Department wanted the ROC to understand that Washington would support plans to reprocess spent fuel in the United States or other countries so that the Taiwanese did not waste resources.

 

Embassy Taipei to State Department, "Proposed Reprocessing Plant for Republic of China," Cable 0338, 16 January 1973

Source: Subject-Numeric 1970-73, FSE 13 Chinat

As recorded in this document, on 15 January 1973 U.S. ambassador Walter McConaughy told ROC Foreign Minister Shen that Washington opposed the reprocessing deal. The ambassador was "reasonably encouraged" that his protest would force Taipei to "think hard" about reprocessing.

 

State Department to Embassies in Bonn, Brussels, and Taipei, "Proposed Reprocessing Plant for Republic of China," Cable 12137, 20 January 1973

Source: Subject-Numeric 1970-73, FSE 13 Chinat

The Department was not assured by Shen's response because of a report that the ROC had already signed a contract with the West German firm UHDE. Moreover, while Victor Cheng had told the AEC that the reprocessing plant would be "small-scale", other information suggested that it would be able to reprocess fifty tons of fuel annually. The State Department asked McConaughy to revisit the issue with Shen; he could even raise the U.S.'s major objection: that if the reprocessing facility lacked adequate safeguards "some government might believe ROC to have object of acquiring nuclear weapons capability." Moreover, the Department asked U.S. Ambassador to West Germany Martin Hillenbrand to raise objections with Bonn.

 

Embassy Taipei to State Department, "Proposed ROC Reprocessing Plant," Cable 685, 31 January 1973

Source: Subject-Numeric 1970-73, FSE 13 Chinat

On 25 January, Ambassador Hillenbrand gave a detailed presentation on the reprocessing plant to Paul Frank, a senior West German diplomat. Noting the major commercial interests involved, Frank said that stopping the deal was not easy. Nevertheless, the Foreign Office opposed it for the same reasons that Washington did and would get the "matter under control."11 A few days later Ambassador McConaughy met with Foreign Minister Shen, who said that his government had not made a decision. Denying that his government wanted a nuclear weapons capability, Shen said that the ROC only wanted a "dependable and adequate" fuel supply for civilian power plants. The ambassador countered by noting that the plans for a "marginal small local reprocessing plant" could jeopardize Taiwan nuclear power industry and Taiwan's economy more generally.

 

Embassy Taipei to State Department, "ROC Decides Against Purchase of Nuclear Reprocessing Plant," Cable 828, 8 February 1973

Source: Subject-Numeric 1970-73, FSE 13 Chinat

On 7 February, Ambassador Hillenbrand reported that the embassy had learned that because of West German Foreign Office pressure, UHDE had backed out of the reprocessing deal.12 The next day, bowing to the inevitable, Foreign Minister Shen told a relieved Ambassador McConaughy that the ROC had decided not to purchase a reprocessing plan. Whether Taipei had finally acquiesced because of the West German decision remains to be seen.

 

State Department Memorandum of Conversation, "Nuclear Programs in Republic of China," 9 February 1973

Source: Subject-Numeric 1970-73, AE 6 Chinat

Although the ROC decision on the reprocessing facility was a success for the State Department, the problem of a Taiwanese nuclear capability did not vanish. Only a day after Shen's news for McConaughy, British diplomats approached the State Department to get an evaluation of unspecified intelligence reports about weapons-related activities in Taiwan.

 

State Department Memorandum of Conversation, "ROC Nuclear Intentions," 14 February 1973

Source: Subject-Numeric 1970-73, AE 6 Chinat

The ROC had its friends and one of them, Bruce Billings, an official with the Aerospace Corporation, called the Department to give the Taiwanese nuclear program a clean bill of health. Billings had recently returned from service at the embassy in Taipei, where he had been special assistant to the ambassador for science and technology, 1968-1973. He conceded, however, that Taiwanese thinking needed to be brought "into line" with U.S. perspectives on nuclear fuel cycles so that there activities would not raise suspicion here.

 

Embassy Taipei to State Department, "Chung Shan Nuclear Research Institute," Cable 1197, 24 February 1973

Source: Subject-Numeric 1970-73, FSE 13 Chinat

This document provides some rare detail on the role of the military in controlling the Chung Shan Nuclear Research Institute.  It shows that whatever General T'ang Chun-po thought about nuclear weapons, he remained a key player in the Taiwan nuclear program.  The embassy's report further shows that the Canadian research reactor, that would be the cause of great controversy in the mid-1970s, was "considered a military secret" and was under the direct control of Admiral Hsia Hsin, deputy director of the Chung Shan institute. Ostensibly a research reactor, "the lack of a research program [for it] has caused considerable comment among Chinese and foreigners." The embassy also learned that the "hot lab", then under construction, was a pilot reprocessing facility that could produce a few grams of plutonium annually.

 

State Department to Embassies in Taipei and Tokyo, "ROC Nuclear Research," Cable 51747, 21 March 1973

Source: Subject-Numeric 1970-73, AE 1 Chinat

This cable reports on a conversation on the nuclear reprocessing problem between Secretary General of the ROC Atomic Energy Council Victor Cheng (who made an appearance in document 9) and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs Richard Sneider. The latter emphasized his concern about reprocessing and expressed gratitude that Taipei had called off the deal with the Germans in light of U.S. protests. Sneider also proposed a U.S. study mission to Taiwan to pursue U.S.-ROC nuclear cooperation. Cheng was receptive to that proposal but did not concede that anything had been amiss; he emphasized that Taipei did not keep "any nuclear secrets from its friends." In keeping with this spirit of openness, he gave AEC officials a progress report on efforts to build a laboratory-scale fuel reprocessing facility--the "hot lab"--at the Nuclear Science Institute. According to Cheng, the facility would produce very small amounts of plutonium, about 300 grams a year.

 

State Department Memorandum of Conversation, "ROC Nuclear Intentions," 5 April 1973, with Intelligence and Research (INR) report on "Nuclear Weapons Intentions of the Republic of China" attached

Source: Subject-Numeric 1970-73, AE 1 Chinat

On April 5 1973, State Department official provided the British with a copy of a Departmental intelligence report assessing ROC nuclear weapons objectives. In light of available evidence, INR concluded that "at present", the ROC has "no plans for proceeding to systematically undertake the development of nuclear weapons," although it did not rule out that a decision to develop nuclear weapons "might be taken at some future date."

 

Memorandum to Mr. [Richard] Sneider from Mary E. McDonnell, U.S. Department of State, Office of Republic of China Affairs, "Reported ROC Nuclear Weapons Development Program," 7 April 1973

Source: Subject-Numeric 1970-73, AE 6 Chinat

As this memorandum suggests, the INR report did not entirely settle the issue. Although wild rumors, e.g., of a Japanese nuclear weapons factory, were discredited, State Department scientists conceded the "difficulty of negative proofs: the absence of hard evidence does not prove the absence of a weapons intention." They also acknowledged that if the Canadian research reactor ran at full capacity, it could yield enough plutonium in one year to build a test weapon, but only if the ROC had reprocessing facilities. This made it important for the U.S. to monitor IAEA inspections to make sure that the ROC was not bending the rules. To get a better idea of ROC intentions, INR supported Richard Sneider's proposal for a U.S. team to visit Taiwan to meet with key officials and visit facilities there.

 

State Department to Embassy in Taipei, "ROC Nuclear Intentions," Cable 71458, 17 April 1973

 

Embassy, Taipei to State Department, "ROC Nuclear Intentions," Cable 2354, 20 April 1973

Location of originals: Subject-Numeric 1970-73, AE 1 Chinat

That some at State still had suspicions is indicated by the statement in cable 71458 about the purpose of the visit to Taiwan by a U.S. "study group": besides trying to further U.S.-ROC nuclear cooperation, the group would work to acquire "information about identity and progress of ROC coterie which advocates development of nuclear weapons capabilities." As indicated by its response, the U.S. embassy in Taipei was willing to help but information that would help the study group would be "forwarded through separate channels," presumably from the CIA station. Documentation on the study group visit, if it took place, is not available.

 

State Department Memorandum of Conversation, "ROC Nuclear Energy Plans," 29 August 1973

Source: Subject-Numeric 1970-73, AE 1 Chinat

Some months later, Victor Cheng and David Chu (mentioned in the Taipei airgram, 8 April 1966, above) visited Washington for talks on the ROC's nuclear energy plans. A meeting with a senior AEC official, Abraham Friedman, disclosed significant discord on the reprocessing issue. After Chu described plans to establish reprocessing facilities, Friedman laid down the law: "we strongly discourage you from proceeding with your plans." Moreover, owing to the IAEA's problematic relationship with Taiwan, if it had to safeguard a reprocessing facility the monitoring would be so intensive that the Agency would no longer play a low-profile role in Taiwan's nuclear industry. But that could possibly force the Agency to end all contacts with the ROC, thus leaving the a reprocessing facility without safeguards. That, Friedman warned "could prejudice the entire ROC nuclear power program." If Cheng or his colleagues responded to Friedman's admonitions, it is not recorded in this document. But the Taiwanese did not altogether abandon their plans; in 1987, they began to develop a reprocessing facility which was dismantled the following year under U.S. pressure.13

 

State Department to Embassy in Taipei, "Demarche on ROC Nuclear Intentions," Cable 224790, 11 September 1976

Source: RG 59, Policy Planning Staff (Director's Files), 1969-7, box 377, China Sensitive Chron 7/1-9/30/76

By the fall of 1974, U.S. intelligence analysts decided that the picture of ROC nuclear intentions was rather less ambiguous. In an intelligence report, CIA analysts argued 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."14

Moreover, as the United States had withdrawn, during the summer of 1974, its stockpile of nuclear weapons from Taiwan as part of a commitment to Beijing to reduce the U.S. military presence on the island, ROC leaders may have had greater interest in a nuclear capability. In any event, U.S. officials and others continued to monitor nuclear developments on Taiwan very closely. By 1976, IAEA inspection visits led to suspicions that the INER may have secretly diverted fuel rods for reprocessing. Although what had actually happened at Taiwan's nuclear facilities remains unclear, this document shows that Washington had enough concern to make a demarche, through U.S. Ambassador Leonard Unger, that the ROC formally renounce nuclear weapons development. The language of the demarche is still classified; apparently, however, it did not refer specifically to possible secret reprocessing activities because the State Department was still considering whether to make representations on them. In any event, in mid-September 1976, ROC diplomats made the promise that Washington sought, although the precise language remains classified. The ROC also publicly announced that it would not develop nuclear weapons because it did not want to use them for killing other Chinese. As the United States was the principal supplier of low-enriched uranium that fueled Taiwanese power reactors, it had some leverage in exacting such promises.15

 

Memorandum from Burton Levin, Office of Republic of China Affairs, to Oscar Armstrong, Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asian Affairs, "PRCLO Comment on Taiwan Nuclear Development," 12 October 1976

Source: RG 59, Policy Planning Staff (Director's Files), 1969-7, box 377, WL China Sensitive Chron 10/1-12/31/76

This document reveals some of Beijing's concerns about Taiwanese developments. The comments may have been only perfunctory but Armstrong's marginal note to Assistant Secretary for East Asian Affairs Arthur Hummel shows that he found them "perturbing."

 

State Department Memorandum of Conversation, "ROC Nuclear Energy Plans," 18 November 1976

Source: Record Group 84, Records of Foreign Service Posts, Top Secret Foreign Service Post Files, Embassy Taipei, 1959-1977, box 1, Def 12 NWT-1976 ROC

Within a few months after the ROC's public declaration, Washington had information suggesting that the ROC was not living up to it. This document shows Unger raising questions about reprocessing with Ambassador Shen, who insisted that all was well and that having made assurances about nuclear weapons, the ROC "would be stupid to seek now to try to set up reprocessing facilities." But questions about diversions continued. During 1977, the United States compelled the Taiwanese to shut down the INER research reactor and to dismantle the hot lab. That, however, did not mean the end of Taiwan's efforts to acquire reprocessing facilities and develop a weapons capability; this remain a source of Washington-Taipei controversy well into the 1980s.16

Note: The editor thanks David Albright and Corey Henderson of the Institute for Science and International Security for helpful comments on this material.

 


NOTES

1.  See Joseph Yager, ed., Nonproliferaition and U.S. Foreign
Policy (Brookings Institution, 1980), 66-81; Leonard S. Spector, Nuclear Proliferation Today (Random House, 1984), 342-44; and Nancy B. Tucker, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the United States, 1945-1992 (Twayne Publishers, 1994), 146-47.
2.  Albright and Gay, "Taiwan: Nuclear Nightmare Averted," The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (January-February 1985): 54-60.
3.  For Col. Chang, see Albright and Gay, 60 and Tim Weiner, "How a Spy Left Taiwan in the Cold," New York Times, 19 December 1997.
4.  FBIS-CHI-98-239, 287 August 1998, as cited in Ming Zhang, "What Threat?", The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September-October 1998, 56.
5. Whether Hsu accurately characterized general T'ang's attitude remains as to be seen as the evidence about his thinking his ambiguous. Conversation with Corey Henderson, Institute for Science and Nuclear Security, 7 September 1999.
6.  For the deal falling through, see Albright and Gay, "Taiwan: Nuclear Nightmare Averted," 56.
7.  Spector, Nuclear Proliferation Today, 342.
8. Albright and Gay, 57.
9.  Embassy Taipei cable 6300, 20 December 1972 and Embassy Tokyo cable 1035, 30 January 1973, Subject-Numeric 70-73, FSE 13 Chinat.  See also Albright and Gay, 57.
10.  Tucker, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the United States, 146.
11. See Bonn Embassy cable 1251, 25 January 1973, Subject-Numeric 1970-73, FSE 13 Chinat.
12. See Bonn Embassy cable 1923, 27 February 1973, Subject-Numeric 1970-73, FSE 13 Chinat.
13.  Albright and Gay, 59.
14.  Albright and Gay, 57.
15. Albright and Gay, 58.
16. Albright and Gay, 59-60; Weiner, "How a Spy Left Taiwan in the Cold," NYT, 20 December 1997.

 

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