Monday, February 26, 2007

No Blast in the Past: How the US killed Taiwan's Nuclear Program

Here's a link I stumbled across today, with discussion and documents, telling the story of how the US snuffed out Taiwan nuclear weapons program in the 1970s.

However much more needs to be learned, these documents provide a telling picture of U.S. nuclear nonproliferation policy at work. In particular, they offer an interesting contrast to the U.S.'s planning earlier in the 1960s to impede, even "take out," the PRC's emerging nuclear capability. Although President Kennedy had been interested in using force against Chinese nuclear facilities, his successor, Lyndon Johnson, concluded that military force was too risky. Johnson and his advisers would also find that that economic embargoes were unavailing when an adversary was determined to mobilize the resources needed to create a nuclear deterrent. By contrast, Taiwan was generally responsive to U.S. pressures, although Washington would have to exert them repeatedly. What made Taiwan responsive, of course, was not only that it was a U.S. ally, it was a relatively dependent one. Not surprisingly, Washington had substantially greater capability to discourage the nuclear ambitions of a dependent ally than it had to check those of a strong adversary.

A significant advantage that Washington had in its dealing with Taipei on nuclear issues was that the ROC was relatively transparent both to U.S. and international authorities. Both foreign government officials, e.g., West German diplomats, and elements of the ROC elite were willing to pass on significant intelligence about Taiwan's nuclear plans Important clandestine sources increased the degree of transparency. One such source was the alleged Central Intelligence Agency agent, Col. Chang Hsien-yi, a key INER official, who became famous after he fled Taiwan in 1987. Whether Chang provided intelligence information relevant to the controversies of the early 1970s remains to be seen
The ROC eventually promised to give up nuclear weapons because it didn't want to kill other Chinese.


James said...

Thank you for your sharing and corrections offered on my blog.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure where you got your last statement, but today's Taiwan is fiercely anti-nuclear especially as a result of the DPP. Michael, you're pro-DPP but you also sometimes try to say that there are little differences between DPP and KMT business-wise.

Well nuclear is one of those issues where nuclear is very, very cheap and for a energy resource-poor country like Taiwan, is really the way to go when compared to fossil fuels in cost and pollution (coal produces much more radioactive pollution than nuclear). From a business point of view, it's nuclear all the way.

(As an aside: The decision to continue building the fourth nuclear power plant can't really be said to have accurately reflected public opinion--people in Taiwan don't like to waste money but more importantly--that was more about being anti-Chen for the sake of being anti-Chen on the part of the KMT than anything else.)

The DPP was and I believe still is a liberal, green party. They consistently brought up the issue of nuclear weapons and power from the 80s and have been anti-nuclear ever since. I don't think the average citizen previously had a good position on it. I would attribute the current anti-nuclear stance of the general public to consistent and strong advocacy by the DPP since that time. Taiwan has the engineering talent and capability to develop nuclear weapons but there is nothing even close to weaponizable nuclear research in Taiwan these days because all schools are too scared they won't attract any students to the dept if they have anything remotely reminiscent of nuclear weapons. Thus you have radiation research for the purpose of medicine and little reactor research going on.

It's a new era and Taiwan and the world now face rapid global warming. The safety of nuclear technology (pebble bed reactors) has also advanced greatly and the cost-benefit equation is very different from what it was before. Today's nuclear power is definitely something Taiwan should take a new hard look at. Alternative energy simply is not stable enough or cheap enough to compete yet and catastrophe from global warming is imminent.

Hazel N said...

There is also an interesting account of this subject in Fires of the Dragon by David E, Kaplan. An excellent book about the murder of Henry Liu,

Anonymous said...

Hi Michael
I sent off the material that I got from the Brookings talk on 228.
The package will get to you in 4-6 weeks as it travelled by grounds/sea mail. So let's say, it should be about end of March or April that you will be receiving the book and the program.
Hope you will enjoy it. But maybe you have the book already!

Oh my gosh, the food pictures look awesome.

Michael Turton said...

Thanks, Joanna!

Anon, I'm aware of that nuclear power proponents believe nukes are more stable than renewables, but reality shows that wind power experiences fewer downtimes, takes up less land, results in far, far less pollution, and in the Taiwan situation, do not pose a security threat from stray hits or deliberate targeting during combat. What to cause chaos in Taipei? Drop a bomb on one of the nuclear plants north of the city and make it melt down.

And of course, pebble bed and other modern safe designs still confront the waste problem. The correct solution is a broad package of alternative energy.


Anonymous said...

Michael, you have an incorrect understanding of what power stability means. Wind, if anything, is not stable.

Gas fired plants are good because you can turn them on and off easily--thus flexible. They are bad because they are fossil and expensive. When load is high (i.e. day time, heat wave), turn it on. When load is low, turn it down.

Nuclear has only one position--on--but the power it produces is stable. Barring maintenance or other problems, it basically runs full on all the time. It is very stable, but has no flexibility. If you estimate a constant minimum demand of 10mW, then build 10mW nuclear capacity and it won't let you down cause it's cloudy.

Wind is "on" all the time, but the amount of power it is producing is variable and has nothing to do with demand. Wind is probably better at night or during the winter (well depends). But energy demand peaks during the day and the summer. See the problem? Wind can claim 5cents a Kw, but this doesn't consider the variability in the power it produces. You might have to double or quadruple your power capacity in order to compensate for variability and even then, it still is fluctuating a lot. You'll still need to build backup capacity.

I don't have the background to give you exact numbers but you'd probably a scenario something like this:

10% max fluctuating (wind, solar)
30% min flexible (natural gas)
the rest could be a mix of variable and constant output sources.

If Taiwan were the US, then the power grid is much bigger and the efficiencies of a larger network, different geography create conditions where wind not blowing in one area could probably be made up for in another area.

The problem for wind and solar to ever break past maybe 10% besides cost are better power grids (share the load, failure or unfavorable weather can be compensated by another area of the network) and battery technology. We need to figure out a way to store energy to smooth out power production. When the wind's blowing but demand isn't there, the energy would be stored. When the wind's not blowing, but demand is there, energy is released from storage.

Now storage is interesting because it doesn't necessarily mean a huge lead battery next to a power plant. It may mean pumping water upstream at a dam. It may mean charging hydrogen batteries. It may mean charging hybrid cars, whatever kind of battery they are using during the night. It may mean something like large commercial refrigerators that aren't opened and closed often being turned down a degree at night and allowed to rise a degree during the day.

Now this is looking like an economic incentive problem. There shouldn't be subsidies for alternative energy. Instead, there should be a tax on fossil fuels that take into account the damage they cause to the environment. Then, we also need to start using variable electric meters. When energy demand is low at night, set the price low--everyone charges their car during the day. When energy demand is high, set the price high. People turn on the lights during the day, when it's really hot, you're more careful about using a/c, because the electric company is taking a big risk of brownout/blackout with the high demand and so they are charging you more for electricity.

Everything and anything with the capacity to be a mini battery would be incentivized to be a battery. Large corporate buildings--turn down the thermostat early in the morning and let the temp rise slowly throughout the day. If prices are 2c at night and 10c during the day, maybe you can invent a battery that costs less than that difference to run. Then do it. You can sort of arbitrage in a way people without the battery can. Take the battery and charge at night, and sell electricity back to the grid during the day.

Last--again, the storage problem is a problem but in coal-fired plants, for example, it's not that there isn't the same level of radiation--it's that there's more, but that it's pulverized and strewn throughout the atmosphere as smoke and soot. Does that make you feel good? Is that better than having it in graphite enclosed spheres that you know how to handle, know how to store?

It's not as sexy as using violence to stop a Japanese whaling ship, but the correct solutions are the right economic incentives and looking more rationally at nuclear technology, esp the newer stuff. Storage requires some creativity, but it's not unimaginable that, for example, as it has agreed in the past, that another country stored the nuclear waste.

Michael Turton said...

Fantastic comment. You're right, I was thinking of the longer downtimes of nuke plants. I tend to agree with your analysis.