核彈MIT: “A” Bomb Made in Taiwan

A new book sheds lights on Taiwan’s nuclear weapons program, which came close to completion before being thwarted by the U.S.
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Alan Patterson
By

I first met David Ho (賀立維), one of the key scientists in Taiwan’s nuclear weapons project, through friends in my vegetable garden. At a neighborhood tea party, I was fortunate to meet Dr. Ho and learn about the book he was writing on Taiwan’s atomic bomb project, which was aborted by the U.S. in 1988.

After years of following the story, I finally met a person who was closely involved with the secret project that had received only very scanty coverage in the Taiwanese media. Ho’s Chinese-language book, 《核彈MIT: 一個尚未結束的故事》, is an authoritative account of Taiwan’s nuclear program, which despite great odds came close to completion.

Much of the book deals with Colonel Chang Hsien-yi (張憲義), the deputy director of Taiwan’s Institute of Nuclear Engineering Research (INER), who exposed the secret project after he defected to the U.S. in December 1987. David Ho, who was in charge of INER’s computing laboratory, reported directly to Col. Chang.

Dr. Ho’s account begins with his life as a nuclear engineering student in Taiwan and the U.S., where the Central Intelligence Agency started to monitor his activities and attempted to recruit Ho as a spy. When Ho applied for a U.S. visa, it became quite clear to the American government that Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense was sending Air Force officer Ho to the U.S. to study nuclear engineering.

Later, when Ho returned to Taiwan to work at INER during the early 1980s, he would meet Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), whom Ho believes became the highest authority in charge of the nuclear weapons project after succeeding his father Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) as president of the Republic of China.

Ho’s book touches on some of Taiwan’s Cold War-era nuclear partners such as Israel and South Africa. The three pariah nations, which had regional security issues, shared technology, materials and expertise to offset the huge costs of weapons development.

Ho notes that at INER, he worked with Dr. Alvin Radkowsky, a nuclear scientist who worked for the U.S. government and later moved to Israel, where he taught nuclear engineering at Tel Aviv University and Ben Gurion University. Dr. Ernst David Bergmann, the father of Israel’s nuclear program, was also an INER consultant, according to Ho.

Taiwan aimed to emulate Israel’s policy of nuclear opacity, a strategy that included the use of computer simulations instead of the actual test of an atomic bomb. By eliminating the need for a test explosion, Israel has avoided international scrutiny and reprisals for nuclear proliferation.

Ho’s book sheds some light on the U.S. relationship with Taiwan in its development of nuclear weapons. Taiwan started its nuclear program while it was still a diplomatic partner of the U.S., yet in the years leading up to the U.S. switch in recognition to China in 1979, Taiwan’s atomic bomb program became a potential risk to détente between Washington and Beijing. The Taiwanese project came under increasing scrutiny prior to its abortion by a team of U.S. and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials.

In hindsight, it’s odd that Taiwan’s first nuclear weapons were made by the U.S. They were deployed her during the 1950s as part of a U.S. strategy to contain China. As the U.S. started withdrawing this nuclear umbrella a decade later and China tested its first nuclear device in 1964, the Taiwanese leadership fearfully embarked on its own nuclear program.

One of the unanswered questions raised by David Ho’s book is what Taiwan (and more specifically President Chiang Ching-kuo) intended to do with the indigenously developed nuclear weapons. Taiwan had no delivery systems such as bombers or missiles capable of carrying atomic bombs. As the nuclear project neared completion, Dr. Ho became increasingly fearful that the bombs would be exploded in Taiwan to deter an invasion by China.

From that perspective, Chang Hsien-yi appears less than the traitor he has been portrayed as in local media. By defusing Taiwan’s nuclear program, Chang may have eliminated a potential risk to the lives of millions of innocent people in Taiwan and a threat to Asia’s security.

The latter part of David Ho’s book deals with the legacy of Taiwan’s development of nuclear technology for weapons and power generation. Some spent fuel rods from the INER reactor used to develop plutonium still remain at the facility near Longtan, Taoyuan, according to Ho. They have not been properly contained and are a risk to the environment and security, he says.

Ho also notes several incidents in which radioactive materials have accidentally entered the environment in Taiwan. In one case, radioactive steel has been used in the construction of residential buildings, he says. Although the incident has been reported in the press and the injured parties have taken legal action, Taiwan’s government has so far failed to contain the radioactive materials or provide adequate compensation to the injured parties.

After his discharge from the Taiwanese military, David Ho became an anti-nuclear activist. He says that the same policy of secrecy and unaccountability that prevailed during Taiwan’s nuclear weapons project continues today in the nuclear power plants that are operated by Taipower, the state-owned power monopoly.

In his book, he raises concerns that the nuclear power plants run by Taipower are susceptible to the same disastrous failures of the Tepco-run nuclear facilities in Fukushima, Japan. Like the facility in Fukushima, Taipower’s nuclear plants on the northern coast are located in a fault zone close to the Pacific Ocean, where they could easily be destroyed by a tsunami, he says.

Ho’s book is a valuable account from one of the world’s few atomic scientists who have dared to draw attention to the dangers of nuclear technology.

 

核彈MIT: 一個尚未結束的故事
David Ho (賀立維)
208 pages. 我們出版, 2015

 

Alan Patterson is a technology journalist whose stories have been published in Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal, among others. He is currently writing a new version of Dr. Ho’s story in English, which will include more sources and is set in a more global perspective. Patterson hopes to complete the project within the next 12 months.

5 Responses to “核彈MIT: “A” Bomb Made in Taiwan”

September 01, 2015 at 10:24 am, Sam Reynolds (@thesamreynolds) said:

Dr. Ho’s story sounds like a fascinating tale of nuclear espionage, but it’s disappointing that he uses it as a platform for anti-nuclear fear mongering. Nuclear power continues to be the safest, cleanest and most efficient form of energy production for the land it uses. While wind and solar can play a part in Taiwan’s energy mix, if Taiwan wants to lessen its dependence on fossil fuels nuclear is the only viable option on the market today. There’s simply not enough land on the island to meet Taiwan’s energy needs with wind and solar.

The government should push TEPCO to meet global safety standards but shuttering more nuclear plants is not an option for a modern, environmentally-conscious economy.

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September 01, 2015 at 1:49 pm, Mike Fagan said:

“Taiwan had no delivery systems such as bombers or missiles capable of carrying atomic bombs.”

I don’t think that is correct. If the Air Force failed in acquiring (or developing) the necessary aircraft, then the existing F-104 could have been configured to carry an atomic bomb from a center pylon, though it would probably have been a suicidal mission for the pilot due to the limitations of the aircraft’s combat range.

“As the nuclear project neared completion, Dr. Ho became increasingly fearful that the bombs would be exploded in Taiwan to deter an invasion by China.”

That would have been an extraordinary claim, had it been made, and one which I am disinclined to believe due to the absence of evidence. There is also the question of how able the PLA were to launch a successful invasion at the time given their military capabilities. A nuclear weapon makes more sense as a deterrent via counter-strike but not as a suicide mechanism. And then there is also the questionable corollary claim that Taiwan’s military had no delivery mechanisms. If the nuclear program could have been kept secret, then why not also an aircraft program, for instance?

Not that I’m a defender of Chiang Ching-kuo, but I find it hard to believe that he would have given serious consideration to such an option. Perhaps I am wrong, but where is the evidence to support the claim?

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September 01, 2015 at 7:09 pm, Mike Fagan said:

I was going to refrain from further comment, but I want to respond to something said by the other commenter before me…

“There’s simply not enough land on the island to meet Taiwan’s energy needs with wind and solar.”

I don’t think it’s as cut and dry as that, but that there could be a very large problem of land procurement costs due to the enormous scale at which wind farms would have to be built. Either that or they have to be built off-shore which would seem to necessitate huge maintenance costs (the almost constant presence of monitoring and repair cranes) which would then offset the relatively cheap construction costs of individual turbines.

But I think at least one of the basic premises of the pro-nuclear argument is questionable, which is that Taiwan should “reduce dependency on fossil fuels”. It is not clear, and has never been made clear despite endless pages of hyperventilating op-eds on the subject elsewhere, why this precept is accepted on faith and not subject to question and doubt, or even a cost-benefit analysis. As carbon dioxide emissions from Taiwan are less than 1% of the global total of carbon dioxide emissions, and since that total has an annual rise of something like 3%, any policy of carbon dioxide reduction in Taiwan – if taken at face value – would seem to be, at best, a waste of time and, at worst, an irresponsible error leading to an expensive and dangerous rise in the cost of electricity.

The more sensible policy would be to continue and even to increase the use of fossil fuels until such time as the costs of high efficiency photovoltaic cells begin to decrease significantly and the problem of portable storage (batteries or capacitors) is finally solved. When solar cell technology and storage technology mature to a point of being economically competitive without subsidies, then the reliance on fossil fuels can be reduced.

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September 02, 2015 at 4:34 am, Jean-Michel said:

This seems like a good chance to ask about something that’s been bugging me for awhile. There are some old reports on the internet, all of them apparently from PRC sources, claiming that Hau Pei-tsun’s diaries of the 1980s (published in 2000) revealed that a small nuclear explosion was actually carried out at the Pingtung base. You can read one such report here. A later article claims this was altered before publication to refer only to a computer-simulated explosion, rather than an actual one. I am very skeptical of this information, since I can’t find it in any Taiwanese or Hong Kong sources, who surely would’ve reported it–heck, I think even the international English-language media would’ve picked up the story.

So my questions: 1) Has anyone actually read Hau’s diaries, and if so, what if anything do they say about explosions (simulate or otherwise) at the Pingtung site? 2) If the published diaries don’t mention an actual explosion, is there any reason to believe that such a test occurred? In other words, is there any credibility to the claim that Hau’s diaries were altered before publication to exclude his admission of an actual nuclear test?

(The reports also claim that Hau’s diaries write of a long-range strategic missile program at the Chung-shan Institute, which is a lot more believable.)

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September 20, 2015 at 10:59 am, CANTIN said:

My view is different and more accurate. It is right that INER has been involved.
But the strategy was more sophisticated: During the years 1970-1975 a nucler program was developped with the contribution of Canada (for Candu reactor) and France for two items (and Europe), and probably with China mainland agreement, under possibly Kissinger contribution, in order US could believe they must let military presence on Taiwan to deter the nuclear development.
Worshop able to produce 200gPlutonium/day has been built in 1973-1975 and succesfully tested in May 1975 using plutonium (unmilitary quality)from EUROCHEMIC plant!

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