U.S. Opposed Taiwanese Bomb during 1970s

Declassified Documents Show Persistent U.S. Intervention to Discourage Suspicious Nuclear Research

National Security Archive
Electronic Briefing Book No. 221

Edited by William Burr

Posted - June 15, 2007

Washington DC, June 15, 2007 - The unfolding controversies over the Iranian and Korean nuclear programs show the extreme difficulty of persuading a government to reverse its nuclear weapons program. Newly declassified documents on U.S.-Taiwan relations during the late 1970s, published today for the first time by the National Security Archive, shed new light on the challenges of counter-proliferation diplomacy. Even a dependent ally, such as Taiwan, tried hard to resist U.S. pressures to abandon suspect nuclear activities and kept Washington guessing whether it had really given them up.

To ensure that the Taiwanese actually shut down what appeared to be R&D for a nuclear capability, the Ford and Carter administrations continuously exerted pressure on Taiwanese leaders to stop scientists and the military from engaging in research with weapons implications. For three years in a row, 1976, 1977, and 1978, the U.S. government secretly confronted Taipei over secret activities--such as uranium enrichment work and attempts to purchase reprocessing technology--that suggested ambition to develop a weapons capability.

Washington policymakers became so worried about the direction of Taiwanese nuclear programs that they took their concerns directly to Premier Chiang Ching-kuo. Amidst U.S. demarches, inspection visits by U.S. officials, and more detailed commitments by Chiang, U.S. intrusion reached the point where the Premier complained that Washington was dealing with Taiwan "in a fashion which few other countries would tolerate."

The declassified documents highlight three episodes:

  • The summer of 1976, when U.S. concerns about Taiwanese interest in nuclear reprocessing triggered a U.S. demarche (protest) and a declaration by Taipei authorities that the regime would "henceforth not engage in any activities relating to reprocessing."
  • January through April 1977, when a nuclear inspection team and IAEA inspector detected suspicious activities at the Institute for Nuclear Energy Research (INER) that raised questions about the direction of Taiwanese nuclear research. This led the State Department to demand far-reaching changes, especially the "reorientation" of the research so that it was more relevant to producing power than weapons. In April Premier Chiang acquiesced in a U.S. note demanding such changes.
  • August-September 1978, as a U.S. nuclear team continued to monitor the INER and picked up worrisome signs that Taiwan had a secret uranium enrichment program. This led to a new demarche and a more authoritative statement by Chiang that his government "has no intention whatsoever to develop nuclear weapons or a nuclear device."

In 1988, ten years after Chiang made this commitment another flap over reprocessing emerged; it was quickly settled, but no doubt U.S. intelligence continues to monitor Taiwan very closely.

With the publication of these documents, the National Security Archive launches 'The Nuclear Vault', a special section of the Archive's Web site devoted to documentation on U.S. nuclear weapons policy issues, largely during the Cold War. With bibliographies, photo galleries, links, documents of the month, key background documents, and other features to be unveiled during the coming months, the Archive hopes to create a source that researchers, students, and interested citizens can turn to for information on one of the most critical issues of our day.

The Archive thanks the New-Land Foundation for making the Nuclear Vault possible. With the introduction of the Nuclear Vault, the National Security Archive announces its affiliation with Nuclear Pathways, a group of organizations whose purpose is to make "information on historic and current nuclear issues more accessible and comprehensible to the public, educators, and students from middle school through graduate programs."

Electronic Briefing Book
The United States and Taiwan's Nuclear Program, 1976-1980:
Intervention in the Nuclear Activities of a Vulnerable Ally

To prevent Taiwanese scientists and military officials from engaging in suspect nuclear activities, newly declassified documents show, during the late 1970s, the U.S. government intervened continuously in Taiwan's internal affairs. For three years in a row--1976, 1977, and 1978--the U.S. government secretly confronted Taipei to agree to stop secret activities, such as attempts to purchase reprocessing technology, which it believed were consistent with developing a nuclear weapons capability. (Note 1) For the first time, the U.S. brought its concerns about Taiwan's nuclear programs to Premier Chiang Ching-kuo. Amidst U.S. demarches, secret inspection visits by U.S. officials, and promises by Chiang, U.S. suspicions grew to the point where, in September 1978, the Premier found it necessary to assure Washington that his government "has no intention whatsoever to develop nuclear weapons or a nuclear device." (Note 2) That Washington was trying to normalize relations with the People's Republic of China during this period could only have made U.S. policymakers hypersensitive about Taiwan's nuclear research. Any developments suggesting that Taiwan was doing nuclear weapons research could cause unwanted tensions in U.S.-China and China-Taiwan relations and, at the worst, put to the test U.S. security guarantees for Taiwan.

Beginning in the mid-1970s, in the aftermath of the Indian "peaceful nuclear explosion," the spread of nuclear weapons capabilities became a greater concern for the U.S. government as the number of proliferation challenges increased, not only India, but also Brazil, Pakistan, and South Korea, among others. The Taiwan case was a special one because of its implications for U.S relations with the PRC. Even though the Nixon administration had generally treated proliferation more or less as a back-burner issue before India's nuclear test in 1974, Taiwan's nuclear activities received close attention because they plainly conflicted with the goal of forging a close relationship with Beijing. Thus, months after Nixon's February 1972 visit to Beijing, State Department officials were concerned enough about the possibility and implications of a Taiwanese bomb that they commissioned the CIA to prepare a Special National Intelligence Estimate on the subject.

Months after the estimate was completed, evidence that Taiwan was trying to acquire technology to reprocess fuel, an important element of a weapons capability, raised concern in Washington. In response to State Department pressure, senior Taiwanese authorities had made commitments to pursue only a peaceful nuclear program. But no one on the U.S. side could be sure that this would happen; one U.S. embassy official in Taipei refused to make a "guarantee" that Taiwan would avoid suspect activities.

By 1976, Washington gleaned more evidence suggesting that Taipei was trying to move forward on processing; Ambassador Leonard Unger brought these suspicions to the highest level, but even commitments by Premier Chiang Ching-kuo were soon found wanting. Within months, the Carter administration was trying to change the entire direction of Taiwan's nuclear energy research, so that it avoided anything that smacked of military purposes. A focal point in the controversy was the Canadian-supplied Taiwan Research Reactor, which was the same model as the reactor which had fueled India's first nuclear test (1974). Another mini-confrontation occurred in the summer of 1978, with Chiang induced to make new promises. While Washington lacked the power to change the direction of Indian and Pakistani nuclear activities, the declassified record suggests that as a "strategic protector," the United States had more influence with Taiwan, e.g., the ability to send in inspection teams. According to Premier Chiang, his country's vulnerability and its "unique relationship" with the United States allowed the latter to deal with Taiwan "in a fashion which few other countries would tolerate." Moreover, that Taiwan was then an authoritarian regime gave its political leaders more freedom of action in taking decisions on its nuclear activities, without regard to public opinion. (Note 3)

U.S. policy toward the Taiwan nuclear program during the late 1970s shows the complexity of tracking overseas nuclear activities. Given prevailing suspicion that, whatever commitments Taiwanese authorities had made at the political-policy level, some scientists and technicians remained strongly interested in nuclear weapons work, Washington officials believed that more or less continuous monitoring was necessary to ensure that Taiwan did not enter into forbidden territory. While the intelligence side of this story remains obscure, U.S. monitoring went to the point that the Central Intelligence Agency recruited agents within Taiwan's nuclear research establishment. Some evidence of this surfaced in early January 1988, when INER's deputy director, Colonel Chang Hsien-yi, along with his family, vanished while on vacation. Not long after this event, U.S. officials visited the INER compound and discovered a hot cell facility. The Taiwanese had not yet separated any plutonium, but the violation of previous understandings led Washington to insist that Taiwan dismantle the hot cell as well as shut down the Taiwan Research Reactor. According to one account by a senior Taiwanese military official, near the time of these events Taiwan had achieved a controlled nuclear reaction. These developments led the Reagan administration to insist that President Lee Teng-hui sign another memorandum renouncing nuclear weapons research; pending declassification requests may shed light on this episode. (Note 4)

 

I. Background, 1972-1973

Documents 1A-B: Intelligence Assessments

Document 1A: Special National Intelligence Estimate 43-1-72, "Taipei's Capabilities and Intentions Regarding Nuclear Weapons Development," 16 (?) November 1972, Secret
Source: Freedom of Information Act release

Document 1B: Morton Abramowitz to Ray S. Cline, Director, Office of Intelligence and Research, SNIE 43-1-72: Taipei's Capabilities and Intentions Regarding Nuclear Weapons Development, "15 November 1972, Secret
Source: Freedom of Information Act release

At the request of the State Department, the CIA's Office of National Estimates (ONE) produced a Special National Intelligence Estimate on Taiwan's nuclear prospects. As Morton Abramowitz's memorandum suggests, bad blood between State Department intelligence and ONE made the production process difficult, but in the end the SNIE was a satisfactory one, even if did not "advance our knowledge." What exactly triggered the State Department request remains obscure, but the impact of recent changes in Washington's China policy may have been paramount. With the Nixon administration's rapprochement with Beijing, State Department officials may have been wondering whether Taiwanese authorities were considering the nuclear option in light of the possibility that U.S. security guarantees might become unavailable. The authors of the SNIE took such concerns into account: they recognized that there were questions in Taipei about how long Taiwan "can count on all-out US support." Moreover, Taiwanese authorities were interested in a deterrent to a PRC attack as well as neutralize PRC blackmail, among other considerations. In light of these concerns, the SNIE opined that Taiwan's "present intention is to develop the capability to fabricate and test a nuclear device." The recently purchased research reactor from Canada would provide a capability to produce enough plutonium for two weapons a year. Nevertheless, technological constrains would slow down any quest for a bomb: Taiwan would be unlikely to have a deliverable weapon before 1978.

The SNIE suggested that Taiwanese authorities would see grave risks in openly testing and stockpiling weapons. A bomb might provoke, not deter, Beijing, but it could also alienate friends, such as Japan and the United States. For example, given Taiwan's dependence on the United States for security, "any move which might imperil that relationship would not likely be taken without long and careful study." Such risks suggest why the SNIE concluded that, even though Taiwan would "keep its weapons option open," it was doubtful that "a decision would be made to proceed with testing or with the fabrication and stockpiling of untested devices."

 

Documents 2A-B: Worries About Reprocessing in Taiwan

Document 2A: State Department cable 174889 to U.S. Embassy Taiwan, "Call on Assistant Secretary Hummel by Victor Cheng," 4 September 1973, Secret
Source: National Archives, Access to Archival Databases, State Department Central Foreign Policy Files, Electronic Telegrams 1973 (hereinafter AAD)

Document 2B: Roger Sullivan to Assistant Secretary of State for Far East and Pacific Affairs Arthur W. Hummel, Jr., "Nuclear Study Group Visit to Taiwan," 29 October 1973, Secret
Source: National Archives, Record Group 59, Department of State Records, Subject Files of the Office of Republic of China Affairs, 1951-1975, Box 14, AE 3 - Nuclear Study Group 1973

Taiwan's interest in acquiring reprocessing technology raised concerns in the U.S. government that Taipei was moving forward in exploring a nuclear weapons "option." Conversations with Victor Cheng of Taiwan's Atomic Energy Commission provided an opportunity to raise concerns over the direction of Taiwan's nuclear program but it did not put the concerns to rest. To get the facts of the matter, the State Department and the Atomic Energy Commission planned a visit of a "study team" to meet with Taiwanese officials at various nuclear installations. (Note 5) On 12 October 1973, U.S. officials learned that Taipei had been in touch with Belgian and French companies to discuss the purchase of a reprocessing plant. In light of this intelligence, which the State Department saw as a "sign of [an] intention" to develop a nuclear weapons capability, U.S. diplomats expected the study team to place a demarche with Taiwanese diplomats and atomic energy officials. Worried that Taipei might not be taking Washington's earlier protests "seriously," Taiwan desk officer Roger Sullivan believed that the U.S. had to take a firm position if it was to have an impact.

 

Documents 3A-B: Study Group Visit, November 1973

Document 3A: State Department cable 223116 to U.S. Embassy Taiwan, "Atomic Energy Study Team Visit to Taiwan," 14 November 1973
Source: AAD

Document 3B: U.S. Embassy Taiwan cable 7051 to State Department, "Fonmin Reaffirms ROC Decision to Refrain From Acquiring Nuclear Reprocessing Plant," 23 November 1973
Source: AAD

Document 3C: Letter, William Gleysteen, Deputy Chief of Mission, Taiwan, to Thomas Bleha, Deputy Director, Republic of China Affairs, 23 November 1973, Secret
Source: National Archives, Record Group 59, Department of State Records, Subject Files of the Office of Republic of China Affairs, 1951-1975, Box 14, AE 3 - Nuclear Study Group 1973

Some documents on the study team visit remain classified, but enough has been released to suggest that the U.S. side believed that "short of a flat statement to Premier Chiang … we have done everything possible to underscore the firmness of our position." While most of their Taiwanese interlocutors insisted that their interest was only in peaceful uses, the study team cautioned Foreign Minister Shen Chang-huan that they had picked up hints that "some individuals and segments of government viewed full fuel cycle and chemical reprocessing plant as [a] way to keep open military option." The study team, therefore, strongly emphasized Taipei's need to "observe greatest care" and to "go out of its way to remove any ambiguity." Otherwise, U.S. nuclear cooperation with Taiwan would be at risk. Shen assured the Americans that his government had "definitely dropped" notions of acquiring a reprocessing plant and that nuclear work would be limited to "peaceful uses." Even with those disclaimers, one of the members of the team, Deputy Chief of Mission William Gleysteen could not "guarantee" that some Taiwanese would not "nudge the ROC into activities associated with a nuclear weapons program." If any suspect developments emerged, he advised, Washington should take them up directly with Chiang.

 

II. Another Reprocessing Flap, July September 1976

Documents 4A-D: Suspicions of Reprocessing

Document 4A: U.S. Embassy Netherlands cable 8502 to State Department, "Nuclear Fuel Processing Plant," 7 July 1976, Secret Limdis

Document 4B. : U.S. Embassy Taiwan cable 5536 to State Department, "Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Plant," 16 August 1976, Secret Exdis

Document 4C: State Department cable 188617 to U.S. Embassy Taiwan, "Nuclear Reprocessing," 30 July 1976, Secret Limdis

Document 4D: U.S. Mission IAEA cable 6195 to State Department, "Fuel Reprocessing Pilot Plant in Taiwan," 19 August 1976, Confidential

Document 4E: U.S. Embassy Belgium cable 8149 to State Department, "Nuclear Processing in ROC," 20 August 1976, Secret Limdis
Source: Freedom of Information Act request (same source for subsequent documents, except where otherwise noted)

Three years later, U.S. authorities would find it necessary to take up nuclear issues with Premier Chiang Ching-kuo, who had taken the reins of power when his father, Chiang kai-Shek died in 1975. In mid-1976, reports from U.S. embassies raised suspicions that Taiwan was involved in negotiations to purchase a reprocessing plant and was otherwise making a "real effort … to gain knowledge and understanding of the entire nuclear cycle." Moreover, Rudolph Rometsch, director of the IAEA Safeguards Division, was inspecting the TRR and related facilities and made discoveries that raised concern about secret reprocessing work at INER. (Note 6) Raising these problems with Vice Foreign Minister Frederick Chien, Ambassador Leonard Unger observed that "national facilities for reprocessing raised unacceptable risk of proliferation." While the State Department was considering a demarche to Taiwan on the reprocessing problem, The Washington Post was investigating this matter and reporter Edward Schumacher spoke with Rometsch. When U.S. representatives at the IAEA learned about the interview, they quizzed Rometsch, who provided a detailed account of his conversation with Schumacher. While he had not told Schumacher that reprocessing was occurring at a Taiwanese pilot plant, Romestch suggested that it could eventually occur there. Ten days later, the Post ran Schumacher's story with the headline, "Taiwan Seen Reprocessing Nuclear Fuel."

 

Document 5A-B: Denials

Document 5A: U.S. Embassy Taiwan cable 5965 to State Department, "Ambassador Meets with Foreign Minister Shen to Discuss Recent Press Reports Concerning Reprocessing on Taiwan," 31 August 1976, Confidential

Document 5B: State Department cable 215766 to U.S. Embassy Taiwan, "ROC Nuclear Program," 31 August 1976, Confidential

Foreign Minister Shen strongly objected to Schumacher's story in the Washington Post and similar articles in other newspapers and television stories, all of which he saw as "wild reports." While reaffirming Taiwan's position against building atomic weapons, Shen carefully hedged his denial about reprocessing. Not persuaded by the denials, the Department told the Embassy that it would soon send a demarche to the Foreign Ministry.

 

Documents 6A-C: U.S. Demarche and Taiwan's Response

Document 6A: State Department cable 91733 to Embassy Taiwan, "ROC's Nuclear Intentions," 4 September 1976, Secret Exdis

Document 6B: U.S. Embassy Taiwan cable 6100 to State Department, "Demarche on ROC's Nuclear Intentions," 9 September 1976, Secret Exdis

Document 6C: State Department cable 224790 to U.S. Embassy Taiwan, "Demarche on ROC's Nuclear Intentions," 11 September 1976, Secret Limdis

Having "conclusive evidence" that INER was undertaking a secret program to acquire reprocessing technology, and not satisfied with Premier Chiang's previous assurances, the State Department sent the text of oral and written statements insisting that "no reprocessing take place on Taiwan." Ambassador Unger followed up by making the demarche during a "cordial" meeting at the Foreign Ministry. Foreign Minister Shen probed the U.S. position, but insisted that he could not respond before consulting with "supreme authority," Premier Chiang. Whatever Chiang or Shen said in reply to the demarche, the Department wanted Unger to avoid statements of "satisfaction with [any] assurances" because the matter would remain open to continued scrutiny. On 12 September, the Taiwanese government responded with a note stating that it would "henceforth not engage in any activities relating to reprocessing." (See Document 17A, p. 7).



Documents 7A-B: Chiang's Assurances

Document 7A: U.S. Embassy Taiwan cable 6272 to State Department, "ROC's Nuclear Intentions: Conversation with Premier Chiang Ching-kuo," 15 September 1976, Secret Nodis

Document 7B: U.S. Embassy Taiwan cable 6301 to State Department, "ROC's Nuclear Intentions," 17 September 1976, Unclassified

Meeting with Premier Chiang, Unger pressed hard to get assurances that Taiwan would not continue efforts to develop a pilot reprocessing plant, "which was our special concern at the moment." Unsuccessfully trying to obfuscate the issue, Chiang committed his government to "discontinue" this activity and made the "specific assurances that [Unger] was seeking." A few days later, the Premier and his cabinet issued a public statement "solemnly" declaring that the ROC had no 'intention whatsoever to use its human and natural resources for the development of nuclear weapons" or to obtain technology to reprocess spent fuel.

 

Document 8: Senate Hearings

State Department cable 235429 to U.S. Embassy Taiwan, "Congressional Hearings on ROC Nuclear Activities," 9 October 1976, Confidential

Sharing the administration's concern about the Taiwan nuclear issue, U.S. Senators heard secret, executive session, testimony by DCI George H.W. Bush, as well as open testimony from senior State Department officials. In light of Chiang's recent statements and the recognition, as Senator Clifford Case (R-NJ) put it, that "we've ridden the ROC quite hard on this one," the Senators "seemed satisfied with the [Department's] handling of the" problem.

 

Documents 9A-C: Chiang's Offer for "American Resident Experts"

Document 9A: U.S. Embassy Taiwan cable 6864 to State Department, ROC's Nuclear Intentions: Conversation with Premier, 12 October 1976, Secret Exdis

Document 9B: U.S. Embassy Taiwan cable 6884 to State Department, ROC's Nuclear Intentions: Premier Chiang's Offer for American Resident Experts," 12 October 1976, Secret Exdis

Document 9C: U.S. Embassy Taiwan cable 7421 to State Department, ROC's Nuclear Intentions: Premier Chiang's Offer for American Resident Experts," 5 November 1976, Secret Exdis

In response to Unger's declaration that the United States would continue its monitoring activities, the Premier expressed willingness to have U.S. scientists stay in Taiwan at the regime's expense to "work anywhere in the nuclear field." Later, Unger explained to the Department why he thought that was not such a good idea, e.g., because it could imply U.S. "dissatisfaction" with IAEA inspectors; nevertheless, he thought that Chiang's offer produced an opportunity for inspections of ROC facilities by U.S. inter-agency teams. When the Vice Foreign Minister Frederick Chien raised the "resident experts" issue a few weeks later, Unger suggested the possibility of periodic visits by "expert teams."

 

III. More Suspicions, January-April 1977

Documents 10A-G: Visit by U.S. Nuclear Experts amidst Renewed Concern about Reprocessing

Document 10A: U.S. Embassy Taiwan cable 8654 to State Department, "U.S. Nuclear Team Visit," 30 December 1976, Secret Exdis

Document 10B: State Department cable 4532 to Embassy Taiwan, "Taiwan's Continued Interest in Reprocessing," 8 January 1977, Secret Exdis

Document 10C: U.S. Embassy Taiwan cable 209 to State Department, "Taiwan's Continued Interest in Reprocessing," 8 January 1977, Secret Exdis

Document 10D: State Department cable 4875 to Embassy Taiwan, "US Nuclear Team," 10 January 1977, Confidential

Document 10E: U.S. Embassy Taiwan cable 332 to State Department, "US Nuclear Team Visit to ROC - Calls," 19 January 1977, Confidential

Document 10F: U.S. Embassy Taiwan cable 409 to State Department, "US Nuclear Team Visit to ROC," 22 January 1977, Confidential

Document 10G: U.S. Embassy Taiwan cable 332 to State Department, "US Nuclear Team Conclusions and Recommendations," 17 February 1977, Secret Nodis

Despite Chiang's assurances about reprocessing, Unger and State Department officials remained suspicious. (Note 7) Thus, in the waning days of the Ford Administration, the Kissinger State Department seized upon the idea of another inspection visit by a study team of U.S. government experts. Department officials probably consulted the Jimmy Carter transition team, which was strongly supportive of nonproliferation initiatives, to get its approval. In the weeks before the inspection team arrived, the State Department learned that the INER was in touch with a Dutch firm about reprocessing technology, leading Kissinger to ask Unger to make another demarche. Unger soon met with an apparently "bewildered" Frederick Chien, who vowed to look into the matter. When Levin's team visited Taiwan, it inspected facilities, but also explained to Taiwanese officials and scientists the U.S.'s increasingly restrictive … attitude toward certain nuclear research activities." According to the reporting cable, after it heard the presentation the INER leadership "sat in deep silence for several minutes."

More needs to be learned about the inspection and the Levin team's report, but apparently the latter addressed concerns about heavy water production and the "hot laboratory" at INER that had been a concern for some time because it could produce small quantities of plutonium. According to Unger the report was important because it confirmed "our suspicions about the … role of INER in implementing the apparent GROC decision to acquire the capability to produce a nuclear explosive device." To check such a development, Unger recommended that Washington "take a very strong stand" toward Taiwan's "whole nuclear research and development program." That Washington would ultimately break diplomatic relations and formal security ties with Taiwan as part of a normalization deal with Beijing had also to be considered because "ROC actions will probably be affected by its perception of its security."

 

Documents 11A-B: Asking Chiang to Change his Rhetoric

Document 11A: U.S. embassy Taiwan cable 1214 to State Department (repeated as State Department cable 39428 to White House), "Nuclear Proliferation," 5 March 1977, Secret Nodis

Document 11B: U.S. Embassy Taiwan cable 1354 to State Department (repeated by Department to White House), 11 March 1977, Secret Nodis

Senior officials of the new Carter administration began meeting with ROC officials to make the point that President Carter was keenly interested in nuclear nonproliferation. Meeting with Minister-without-Portfolio Chou Shu-K'ai, Ambassador Unger emphasized Carter's concern about nuclear proliferation and raised questions about a statement by Premier Chiang to the effect that Taiwan had a "nuclear weapons capability even though it does not intend to produce weapons." Meeting with Unger a few days later, Chou said that he had spoken with Chiang, who had "agreed there was no need … to say anything further about [a] nuclear weapons capability."

 

Document 12: Discovery at the Taiwan Research Reactor

U.S. Embassy Japan Cable 3212 to State Department, "ROC/IAEA Safeguards," 8 March 1977, Secret Nodis, excised copy

An official, whose identity was excised by the Department of State, but most likely an IAEA inspector, apparently met in Tokyo with ACDA official Joerg Menzel, a member of the team that had visited Taiwan a few weeks earlier. That person told Menzel about his visit to the Taiwan Research Reactor (TRR) at the INER's campus and the discovery of an unsafeguarded exit port at the fuel pond. This brought up questions of the effectiveness of IAEA safeguards, but Agency inspectors believed that the problem reflects "lack of ROC cooperation" than any problems with the safeguards themselves. The discovery of the exit port also raised questions about the possible diversion of nuclear materials for secret reprocessing, but so far no diversion had been found. This discovery, as well as the unearthing of deceptive practices at the TRR that suggested possible diversion, soon led the U.S. to press the Taiwanese to shut down the TRR. This development was first reported by David Albright and Cory Gay in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. (Note 8)

 

Documents 13A-B: A Demand for "Far-Reaching" Action

Document 13A: State Department cable 67316 to Embassy Taiwan, "Nuclear Representation to the ROC," 26 March 1977, Secret Nodis [repeated to Brzezinski at White House, pp. 8-15]

Document 13B: U.S. Embassy Taiwan cable 1682 to State Department, "Nuclear Representation to the ROC," 26 March 1977, Secret Nodis

The discoveries at the TRR made the Carter administration want more than specific pledges; the "risk" of a Taiwan nuclear weapons program was such that the State Department asked Unger to demand a wholesale reorientation of Taiwan's nuclear research program. For his approach to Chiang, Unger was to follow a detailed script that pointed out that the U.S. nuclear team had concluded that "much of INER's current activities have far greater relevance to a nuclear explosive research program than to [a] nuclear power program." To eliminate the risk of a Taiwan nuclear weapons program, Unger was to present a number of demands; e.g., Taiwan was to include all present and future nuclear facilities and materials under the U.S.-ROC bilateral agreement for nuclear cooperation, which would ensure that all activities were compatible with civilian uses only. Among other conditions, Taiwan was to "terminate all fuel cycle activities and reorient facilities involving or leading to weapons-usable materials." Thus, uranium enrichment and heavy water production capabilities would be ruled out. Not only would operations at the TRR have to be suspended, Taiwan would transfer all plutonium to the United States and otherwise "avoid any program or activity which, upon consultation with the U.S., is determined to have application to the development of a nuclear explosive capability."

To follow up on the demarche, Washington would send a team of nuclear experts to work with Taiwanese scientists on implementing the necessary technical arrangements. The Taiwanese government was to respond with a detailed written statement spelling out its acceptance of the U.S. demarche. Ambassador Unger responded with a few questions, e.g., what if Chiang asked for details on the "serious problems" at INER and the U.S.'s "evidence"? The Department's answer is not yet available.

 

Document 14: Results of U.S. "Crackdown"

Zbigniew Brzezinski to President Carter, "Weekly National Security Report #11," 29 April 1977, Top Secret, Excerpt
Source: Jimmy Carter Library, Brzezinski Collection, box 41, Weekly Reports to the President, 1-15

A record of Unger's meeting with Chiang is not yet available, but a brief report by Brzezinski suggested that the Premier acquiesced: The U.S. effort to "crack down" on the heavy water project and the "hot laboratory" "clearly yielded its desired results."

 

Documents 15A-B: Strengthening the "Moderates"

Document 15A: U.S. Embassy Taipei cable 2646 to State Department, "Visit of CAEC Secretary General - Dr. Victor Cheng," 6 May 1977, Secret (repeated to Brzezinski at White House), Secret Nodis, excised copy

Document 15B: State Department cable 117288 to Embassy Taiwan, "U.S. Technical Team Visit, Victor Cheng Visit to Washington," 21 May 1977, Secret Exdis

Giving an update on the local reaction to the U.S. demands, Unger reported that the "GROC leadership has made an honest, albeit reluctant, effort to comply." Not only had it terminated the reprocessing deal with Coprimo, Taipei had closed down the hot lab at INER and suspended operations at the TRR. Somewhat concerned about "rumors of discontent among …members of the `nuclear leadership'", Unger recommended steps to strengthen the position of "moderates." Therefore, he urged that "every consideration" be given to Victor Cheng, who was Washington to discuss the licensing of Taiwan Power's first nuclear power reactor, among other issues. Concerned about the suspension of work at the TRR, Cheng wanted to resume operations once a plan had been devised to transfer spent fuel. Given that only a few INER officials were aware that routine maintenance was only a cover story for the shut-down, they would become suspicious if the shut-down was prolonged. With a U.S. inspection team slated to visit Taiwan soon, Cheng was urged to be patient because of the "considerable time and effort" it would take to ensure that operations at the TRR were consistent with U.S. objectives.

 

Documents 16A-C: Visit by U.S. Technical Team

Document 16A: U.S. Embassy Taiwan cable 3158 to State Department, "U.S. Technical Team Visit," 31 May 1977, Secret Limdis, excised copy

Document 16B: U.S. Embassy Taiwan cable 3310 to State Department, "U.S. Technical Team Visit," 6 June 1977, Secret Limdis

Document 16C: U.S. State Department cable 140904 to Embassy Taiwan, "Follow-up to U.S. Technical Team Visit," 17 June 1977, Secret

The agreements produced by the U.S. demarche, apparently codified by a 12 April note from Taiwan, remain classified. They probably involved an understanding that a U.S. team would visit Taiwan for inspections and discussion of the "reorientation" of Taiwan's nuclear activities. Declassified cables on the highly technical talks between the U.S. team and Taiwanese officials show considerable confidence on the U.S. side that "ROC officials … seemed extremely desirous of taking all necessary steps to assure complete compliance with the agreements." Meetings with INER officials covered all of the topics that the U.S. side wanted Taiwan to address, including the spent fuel produced by the TRR, the need for stronger IAEA safeguards at TRR, proper disposal of plutonium, and dismantling of the hot lab. While the discussions were productive, the Embassy wrote of the need to avoid "complacency," in part because Taiwan's "underlying security fears … will continue to provide some elements …with an argument for nuclear weapons development." To show the Taiwanese that the United States remained wary, a few weeks after the team visit the State Department sent a message for Victor Cheng, asking about such matters as the processing of plutonium and work on U-233 separation.

 

Document 17: Disposal Problem

State Department cable 157714 to Embassy Taiwan, "TRR Spent Fuel Disposal in Canada," 7 July 1977, Secret

One problem that had to be solved was the disposal of the spent fuel produced by the TRR. A State Department approach interested the Canadians; having provided the fuel in the first place, they wanted to minimize Ottawa's "exposure" if it was misused (a Canadian-supplied nuclear reactor had provided fuel for India's 1974 "peaceful" nuclear explosion).

 

Documents 18A-B: Resuming Operations at the Taiwan Research Reactor

Document 18A: State Department cable 305275 to Embassy Taiwan, "The Taiwan Research Reactor," 22 December 1977, Secret Nodis

Document 18B: Embassy Taipei cable 7631 to State Department, "The Taiwan Research Reactor," 27 December 1977, Secret Nodis, excised copy

Responding to Taiwan's request to restart the TRR, the Department sent Ambassador Unger a detailed message specifying the conditions under which reactor operations could resume. Besides addressing such key issues as spent fuel disposal, safeguards measures, and an acceptable research program, the Department wanted INER leaders to consider a larger change: to convert, sooner or later, the reactor so that it used Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) fuel, which had less of a proliferation risk. The Department also emphasized the importance of rapid implementation of point one of the exchange of notes "concerning the placement of all present and future ROC nuclear activities under the safeguard provisions of the US/ROC agreement for cooperation."

According to Ambassador Unger, the U.S. proposal was "well received," but the details of the follow-up to the U.S. presentation remain classified. While Taiwan and Washington would reach an agreement on the conversion of the TRR to LEU fuel, when exactly in 1978 the reactor resumed operations is unclear.

 

Document 19: "Lingering Suspicions"

Memorandum, Gerard Smith to Allen, 10 March [1978?], with response by AL, n.d., unclassified

Gerard C. Smith, the chief SALT I negotiator during the Nixon administration, worked for the Carter administration as an ambassador-at-large on non-proliferation matters. When Smith asked what questions the government still l had about the Taiwan program, "AL" reported that "lingering suspicion" remained that "bomb-related work" was continuing "but that it is not clear that it is intended to be so related." The United States would soon be approaching Taiwanese authorities for "more elaborate assurances."

 

IV. Another Demarche, August-September 1978

Documents 20A-B: Problems at the Chungshang Institute

Document 20A:Taiwan Embassy cable 4988 to State Department, "Nuclear Team Visit: Initial Calls: Discussion with CIST Director Tang," 31 July 1978, Secret Exdis, excised copy

Document 20B: State Department cable 201370 to Taiwan Embassy, "US Nuclear Team Visit," 9 August 1978, Secret Nodis, excised copy

While the background for another visit by the U.S. nuclear team remains classified, continuing suspicion of Taiwanese nuclear activities plainly motivated it. By the time of this visit, President Carter had signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act (NNPA) which gave the executive branch a club--the suspension of nuclear exports--in the event a government had violated IAEA safeguards or an agreement for cooperation with the United States. During this visit, an important focus was the Chungshan Institute for Science and Technology (CIST), whose links with the military and interest in nuclear technology had been a source of concern for some years. These documents are excised at significant points but they suggest that CIST may have been running a secret uranium enrichment program, that a Dr. Ma had apparently been involved, and that the U.S. team could not be "certain that similar … work was not underway elsewhere." Adding to the doubts was that CIST's director, General Tang, did not want the team to visit and did not support the government's policy statements against nuclear weapons work.

 

Documents 21A-E: Another Demarche to Chiang

Document 21A: U.S. Embassy Taiwan cable 6065 to State Department, "Follow-up to Nuclear Team Visit: Demarche to President Chiang," 8 September 1978, Secret Nodis

Document 21B: U.S. Embassy Taiwan cable 6068 to State Department, "GROC Request for Clarification of Point Contained in U.S. Nuclear Demarche," 9 September 1978, Secret Nodis

Document 21C: State Department cable 231333 to U.S. Embassy Taiwan, "GROC Request for Clarification of Point Contained in U.S. Nuclear Demarche," 13 September 1978, Secret Nodis

Document 21D: U.S. Embassy Taiwan cable 6279 to State Department, "President Chiang's Reply to Secretary Vance's Letter on Nuclear Matters," 14 September 1978, Secret Nodis, excised copy

Document 21E: U.S. Embassy Taiwan cable 6351 to State Department, "Proposed Assignment of U.S. Nuclear Scientists to ROC," 18 September 1978, Secret Nodis, excised copy

The letter from Secretary of State Vance to Chiang remains secret, but it focused on concerns about laser isotope separation research as well as the suspect activities at the Chungshan Institute. Plainly disturbed that Washington was bringing up nuclear matters again, Chiang stated that the United States "should take the President's word." Unger reported that Chiang "was more obviously annoyed and disturbed than I have ever seen." Chiang believed that his country's vulnerability and its "unique relationship" with the United States allowed the latter to deal with the Republic of China "in a fashion which few other countries would tolerate." Chiang would not discuss the letter or the talking points memo that Unger presented, insisting that nuclear matters henceforth be discussed with the Foreign Ministry. Within a week, Chiang replied, assuring Vance that his "government is not engaged in any research work in the sensitive fields of nuclear enrichment, reprocessing, or heavy-water production." He also declared, more categorically than before, that his government "has no intention whatsoever to develop nuclear weapons or a nuclear device." Moreover, the work at CIST was not related to nuclear weapons. Chiang restated his invitation for U.S. nuclear scientists to work closely with Taiwanese counterparts on a long-term basis as a way to prevent "misunderstandings" about Taiwan's nuclear program. Ambassador Unger considered that proposal a useful one, although heavy excisions obscure his line of reasoning.

 

Document 22: Intelligence Briefing

Proposed Talking Points for Joe Hayes Briefing of the NRC on the ROC Nuclear Program," with "Talking Points" Attached, n.d. [circa September 1978], Secret, excised copy

For a presentation to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Taiwan developments, INR nuclear expert Joseph Hayes and possibly another official prepared sets of talking points. The briefing provides a useful overview of the concerns that led to the recent demarche to Chiang, and the latter's reply to Vance, which was seen as "highly reassuring." Hayes' summary concluded that "there is no evidence to indicate that there is a weapons development program or an attempt to develop fissile material"; nevertheless, some INER research projects require "close scrutiny" because of their relationship to reprocessing, among other problems.

 

Document 23: Conversion to LEU

Department of State cable 232034 to U.S. Embassy Canada, "Conversion of Taiwan Research Reactor to Use of Low Enriched Uranium and Disposition of Natural Uranium Spent Fuel," 23 September 1978, Secret Exdis

U.S.-Canadian cooperation remained an important part of the effort to ensure that Taiwan's nuclear research activities posed minimal proliferation risks. This cable shows further U.S.-Canada discussion of the TRR spent fuel issue as well as the project to convert the TRR to LEU fuel. The spent fuel would be stored and processed in the United States, instead of Canada as previously agreed, while Canada would provide consulting and other services related to the conversion of the TRR.

Document 24: Renegotiating the Nuclear Agreement

Memo from Ronald J. Bettaeur to Mr. Oxmand et al., "Taiwan Memo on Nuclear Issues," 22 December 1978, enclosing memorandum, "Nuclear Agreements with the ROC," Confidential, excised copy

Owing to a requirement in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act and limits on supplies of reactor fuel that could be provided to Taiwan, Washington and Taipei had begun to renegotiate the U.S.-R.O.C. Nuclear Agreement. The agreement would include a confidential "assurance" (tab A) that Taiwan considered itself bound by the NPT, the Limited Test Ban Treaty, and other agreements, including secret understandings reached with the United States during 1976-1978.

 

Document 25: Taiwan Wants "Options"

U.S. Embassy Taiwan cable 182 to Department of State, "The Nuclear Option Again," 10 January 1979, Confidential

With the normalization of Beijing-Washington diplomatic relations only a few months ago, the U.S. would no longer have an embassy in Taipei, but only a non-governmental office--the American Institute in Taiwan--and the mutual defense treaty would expire. Under the new circumstances, the embassy recognized that some Taiwanese officials wanted to "leave some ambiguity about keeping [their] options." During a recent defense symposium, one senior official spoke, in the face of significant opposition, of the need to develop nuclear weapons: "we need not keep the promise strictly and suffer."

 

Document 26: A Trouble-Free Inspection Visit

American Institute in Taiwan cable 372 to American Institute in Taiwan, Washington, "U.S. Nuclear Technical Visit Team," 11 May 1979, Secret Exdis

In early May 1979, as part of what was becoming a routine process, Washington sent another nuclear team to Taiwan to meet with scientists and inspect facilities. The team, whose members are not clearly identified, had a productive visit and found the INER staffers were "highly cooperative." A focal point of the high technical discussions was a meeting of the minds on a plan to convert the TRR to LEU fuel. Other subjects of discussion between the U.S. team and the Taiwanese included spent fuel transfer and computer capability. Apparently the team encountered no "gray area" research that raised questions about a proliferation risk.

 

Documents 27A-B: Nuclear Exports

Document 27A: American Institute in Taiwan cable 3020 to American Institute in Taiwan, Washington, "Exports of Nuclear Materials and Equipment to Taiwan," 16 June 1980, Confidential

Document 27B: Department of State cable 161075 to AIT Taipei, "Export of Nuclear Materials and Equipment to Taiwan," 19 June 1980, Confidential

Some problems around the "assurance" issue cited above (see document 24) may not have been resolved until the late spring of 1980, but the details remain classified. In any event, various export license issues needed to be resolved, such as INER's requests for heavy water and halden fuel. The AIT viewed the latter request as especially important to encourage INER to orient its activities around the needs of Taiwan Power Co.

 

Documents 28A-B: German Nuclear Exports to Taiwan and the Non-Proliferation Regime

Document 28A: State Department cable 175927 to U.S. Embassy West Germany, "Nuclear Exports to Taiwan," 3 July 1980, Secret Exdis

Document 28B: Gerard F. Helfrich to Mr. Bengelsdorf et al., "Nuclear Export to Taiwan - Taiwan Non-Paper," 22 August 1980, "Non-Paper" attached, Secret

West German firms seeking a role in Taiwanese reactor projects made Bonn want to be sure that any nuclear business was properly safeguarded. Told by IAEA authorities that the Germans could fold any exports into an inventory of safeguarded items created by a U.S.-Taiwan-IAEA trilateral agreement, German diplomats brought up the matter with the State Department. This raised a new problem because decisions had to be made on what conditions would apply when a non-U.S. supplier added "major new facilities" to the inventory. A few weeks later, an interagency-State, ACDA, and Energy-committee had prepared a "non-paper" for the German embassy that stipulated the conditions under which German firms could participate in Taiwanese nuclear business. Not only would the U.S. and Taiwan have to approve the addition of West German "items" into the inventory, the non-proliferation assurances that Taipei and Washington had negotiated would have to apply to them. Moreover, Bonn, Washington, and Taiwan, would have to consider complex issues relating to "fallback safeguards," disposition of spent fuel, and violations of IAEA safeguards. Documents on the West German response are not yet available.

 

Document 29: Conversion to LEU

Department of State cable 197132 to U.S. Embassy Canada, "Taiwan Research Reactor," 25 July 1980, Secret Exdis

The proposal to convert the TRR to LEU fuel had a complex history. During the summer of 1980, the Carter administration had completed a package deal, for presentation to Taiwanese authorities, to begin the LEU conversion "as soon as possible," and to make arrangements for the "systematic transfer" of spent uranium fuel. While U.S. agencies had assumed for a year or two that the Canadians would play a role in the conversion scheme, according to the latest plan, there would only be a minor Canadian role. But the State Department wanted Ottawa's support, especially by covering some of the transport costs for the spent fuel (which Canada had originally supplied). Subsequent developments in the TRR conversion story remain to be documented.

 

Notes

1. In 1999, the Archive published an electronic briefing book, "New Archival Evidence on Taiwanese 'Nuclear Intentions', 1966-1976", documenting some of these developments; the newer documents put the events of the 1970s in fuller context.

2. For an important account, see David Albright and Corey Gay, "Taiwan: Nuclear Nightmare Averted," The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (January-February 1998): 54-60. For more information on the U.S. and Taiwanese nuclear R&D, see Jeffrey Richelson, Spying on the Bomb: American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005), 245-247, 262-263, 266-271, 274-277, and 367-368.

3. See George Perkovich, India's Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 462. A similar pattern can be seen with South Korea; see Seung-young Kim, "Security, Nationalism, and the Pursuit of Nuclear Weapons and Missiles: South Korean Case, 1970-82," Diplomacy and Statecraft 14 (2001): 53-80.

4. Albright and Gay, "Taiwan: Nuclear Nightmare Averted," 59-60; "Former Taiwan Military Chief Details Nuke Weapons Program," Kyodo News Service, 5 January 2000. See also Richelson, Spying on the Bomb, 367-368.

5. Whether the 1960s U.S. inspection visits to the Dimona facility in Israel had any impact on the origins of the decision to send a study team to Taiwan is unknown; no doubt, U.S. officials were determined not to let Taiwanese authorities sidetrack or block them from visiting relevant installations. For the Israeli case, see Avner Cohen, Israel and the Bomb (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).

6. Albright and Gay, "Taiwan: Nuclear Nightmare Averted," 58.

7. See Unger's conversation with Shen in November 1976.

8. See Albright and Gay,"Taiwan: Nuclear Nightmare Averted," 58-59.