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.