With the recent release of the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the signing of the “New START” nuclear arms reduction treaty between the U.S. and Russia, and the huge nuclear talks in Washington starting today that dozens of world leaders* are attending, nukes are all over the news and the blogosphere. (For a nice run-down of all three of these things, see this post from The Daily Kos‘s Page van der Linden.) On the same theme, the National Security Archive‘s UNREDACTED blog recently posted about a document, formerly classified and obtained with a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, that discusses aspiring nuclear powers. Entitled “Prospects for Further Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” the report is from 1974, and does include Taiwan as a potential nuclear “up-and-comer.” (UNREDACTED posted the document not because it includes Taiwan, but instead because it includes still undeclared nuclear power Israel. My interest, though, lies with Taiwan.) I thought it would be interesting to look at what the report said about Taiwan’s pursuit of nuclear weapons back in the 1970s.
With regard to Taipei’s perceived nuclear capabilities, the report stated
In connection with an ambitious program for procurement and operation of nuclear power facilities on Taiwan, the Republic of China (ROC) is gradually developing a potential for the production of nuclear weapons.
Sound a little bit like modern-day Iran? Not really. The report goes on to discuss the main location for Taiwan’s nuclear research efforts (a place called Lungtan, in northeastern Taiwan) and how, understandably, military efforts related to developing nuclear weapons in Taiwan were kick-started by Beijing’s first nuclear test (October 16, 1964).
There were still several technical roadblocks to a Taiwanese bomb, though. Difficulties remained in acquiring the proper technology for chemical separation (no mention of centrifuges here, though) and heavy water processing equipment. Most importantly, Taiwan was far from being able to deliver a nuclear device:
At this stage, there is no evidence of ROC progress toward development of a nuclear delivery system which would pose a credible threat to Mainland China targets.
This is in stark contrast to modern-day rogue states Iran and North Korea, both of whom have conducted successful ballistic missile tests. The bottom line on Taiwan’s nuclear weapons capabilities, circa 1974:
…[W]e think it would take a decision [to begin production of nuclear weapons] in the immediate future and considerable foreign assistance from sources such as Israel or France for the ROC to be able to construct a device by 1980.
I want to talk a bit more about Taiwan’s nuclear power facilities. According to a recent article in the Global Post, despite a long reluctance to expand Taiwan’s reliance on nuclear power, the “nuclear-friendly” KMT has begun to take another look at resuming expansion of Taiwan’s nuclear power industry, partially for “green” purposes – reduction of carbon output. (You can see the locations of Taiwan’s three currently active nuclear power stations in this document from Taipower, Taiwan’s state power company, and read about “The Burden-Laden Fourth Nuclear Project” – the controversial new nuclear station that has been delayed over much of the last decade.) The “raw materials” to build a bomb remain, but there are some significant reasons why Taiwan probably wouldn’t try it.
The biggest of these is that were that the PRC to catch wind of it, it would probably be grounds for an immediate attack. Most people agree that the military balance in the Taiwan Strait has decidedly tipped towards China over the past decade, and 9 out of 10 of these folks further concede that China has lots of ways to make life in Taiwan pretty unpleasant while at the same time frustrating American efforts to intervene. (For a concise example of this thinking, see RAND Senior International Policy Analyst Mr. David A. Shlapak’s recent testimony (PDF) before the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission.)
At the time this report was written, the U.S. and Taiwan still had a mutual defense treaty, and the possibility of jeopardizing that blanket of protection if the U.S. discovered a clandestine attempt to build a bomb must have also entered Taiwan’s calculus. As a final word on intention, the report surmises that
Taipei probably sees a capability to design and produce a nuclear weapon as a potentially useful hedge against the unknown exigencies of the future, when it may be alone and facing great risks.
Yes, the writing was on the wall, was it not? With the beginning of normalization of ties between the U.S. and the PRC in the early 1970s ultimately resulting in American official “de-recognition” of Taipei before the end of the decade in favor of official recognition for Beijing, it had to have been a very uncertain time for Taiwan when this report was written. Fortunately, through the vagaries of 1979’s Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. was able to continue to provide Taiwan defensive weapons to help keep back the Communist hordes, the most recent iteration of arms sales under these auspices I discussed here and here.
More recently, in 2008 the U.S. accidentally shipped some nuclear parts – four nuclear triggers – to Taiwan. This episode was part of a larger pattern of “laxness” with regard to stewardship of the U.S. nuclear stockpile that ultimately resulted in a reshuffling of top U.S. Air Force leadership. (This post from Arms Control Wonk tells about one of the other nuclear “slip-ups” at that time – it’s worth a read.) I guess that answers the question of whether Taipei, when filling out their order blank for U.S. arms, can just check the box that says “nuclear device” – not usually.
*Israel’s Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, decided at the last minute that the prospects of being called out at the conference by Middle Eastern neighbors like Egypt and Turkey about its undeclared but relatively universally accepted nuclear status was something he wanted to pass off on his deputy, Dan Meridor, instead.