An anti-nuclear protest in Taiwan. The island was once bent on developing its own atomic bombs. Photo: Getty Images
An anti-nuclear protest in Taiwan. The island was once bent on developing its own atomic bombs. Photo: Getty Images

A current-affairs commentator close to Taiwan’s ruling independence-learning Democratic Progressive Party recently gave Beijing a “warm reminder” that it should be aware that Taipei was capable of making a nuclear bomb in “as little as in seven days” and should thus rethink its menacing of the island.

On a live television program, the commentator was mocked for making such an outrageous assertion. His remarks have also gone viral on the mainland, which regards Taiwan as a renegade province, with party mouthpieces rushing to dismiss the contention as “frivolous”.

Yet declassified archives and bits and pieces divulged over the years point to the fact that back in the 1980s, Taiwan was making steady headway in its nuclear program, a top-secret initiative by the then-ruling Kuomintang regime to counter nuclear-armed mainland China. Even Washington was said to have been kept in the dark when Taipei  first started to seek ways to make its own nukes at the behest of the late top leader Chiang Kai-shek.

Taipei-based China Times revealed that the National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology under Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense had even produced a few weaponized prototypes as early as 1981.

But the endeavor ground to a halt after chief nuclear scientist Chang Hsien-yi defected to the United States in 1987. As was subsequently revealed, Chang had been leaking information to Washington at the instigation of the Central Intelligence Agency for years before he fled to the US, triggering a rare face-off between the two long-standing allies.

Chang’s testimony to the US Congress eventually laid bare Taiwan’s clandestine nuclear program, and then-president Ronald Reagan reportedly warned Taiwanese deputy president Lee Teng-hui not to continue with nuclear militarization, days after his boss Chiang Ching-kuo’s death in January 1988.

But a more dramatic twist occurred in the same month, despite Taipei’s assurance to abide by US wishes. American agents and International Atomic Energy Agency technicians raided the island’s nuclear research facilities in Taiyuan county near Taipei, confiscated all files and entombed preliminary reactors with concrete.

They also transferred the plutonium, heavy water and fuel rods to the US to nip Taiwan’s nuclear ambitions in bud. The hastily executed operation even caused up to six hydrogen explosions, polluting the soil nearby, Taipei-based ETC News reported in 2014.

Nonetheless, what Taipei got in return for aborting its nuclear experiments was Washington’s security guarantee.

The island may still have a talent pool for nuclear research and development, Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece Global Times speculates, citing a Taiwanese military-affairs observer. But the main obstacle is obtaining nuclear fuel such as uranium-235 and 238, given the stepped-up international scrutiny of the transshipment of such materials to stem nuclear proliferation.

If it must start from scratch, Taiwan may need a decade before it can claim to own nuclear weapons. It’s the same for other countries that may have mastered nuclear technologies but lack supporting infrastructure. Another problem for the densely populated, 36,200-square-kilometer island would be finding somewhere to conduct nuclear tests.

This year South Korean media cited retired US officials as saying that Washington might consider deploying nuclear weapons in Taiwan, echoing a notion by David Helvey, the Pentagon’s principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, that Taiwan must possess effective deterrence against the People’s Liberation Army. Yet before long the Tsai Ing-wen administration refuted the rumor about a nuke-armed Taiwan.

Similar ideas about reviving Taiwan’s nuclear program were also floated by some lawmakers the last time the Democratic Progressive Party ruled the island, during Chen Shui-bian’s presidency, though Chen vehemently denied any such plan.