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Taiwan Can’t Shake Its Nuclear Ghosts

The island’s resistance to a dependable—and desperately needed—source of energy has been shaped by a covert history.

After a contested race, the people of Taiwan have elected current Vice President Lai Ching-te to be their next president. The result keeps the Democratic Progressive Party, which broadly favors Taiwanese sovereignty and closer ties with the United States, at the helm of government for a third consecutive term. Although managing relations with Beijing garners the most international attention, perhaps no problem will be more vexing to the DPP than Taiwan’s energy situation, which is precarious.

Taiwan imports 97 percent of its energy through highly vulnerable maritime shipping routes. Any quarantine, blockade, or invasion of the island by China would devastate its ability to sustain basic services and critical infrastructure—not to mention the factories that produce approximately 90 percent of the world’s most advanced semiconductors. At the moment, best estimates suggest that Taiwan’s strategic energy stockpiles contain only enough natural gas to last 11 days and enough coal to last 39 days. Even though Taipei acknowledges these vulnerabilities, solutions are in short supply.

Taiwan was not always so energy dependent; just a few decades ago, it was a major producer of nuclear energy. During the mid-1980s, nuclear power accounted for roughly half of the island’s electricity consumption. At the time, Taiwan had six operable reactors, with plans to build more. But in the last two decades, Taipei has reduced its reliance on nuclear energy, and the DPP, which rose to prominence during nuclear power’s heyday on an anti-nuclear wave, played a key role in this shift. When the party won the presidency in 2016, it pledged to phase out nuclear power entirely. If Lai fulfills the promises of his predecessor, the island’s final two reactors will go offline by next year.

Considering its location in one of the world’s most contentious bodies of water and its fraught relationship with Beijing, Taiwan’s resistance to what was once a dependable domestic source of power may seem puzzling. For Taipei, however, it’s complicated. Lai’s impending choice of whether to preserve or abandon the nuclear option will be informed by a long and lesser-known history of proliferation, espionage, disaster, and democratization.

Taipei’s interest in all things nuclear began during the early days of the atomic age. In December 1949, after years of civil war with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Gen. Chiang Kai-shek relocated Nationalist forces to the island of Taiwan, where he established a dictatorship under Kuomintang (KMT) party rule. Chiang did not, however, abandon ambitions to recapture the mainland, and as the general consolidated power, he saw nuclear technology as a means of acquiring international prestige and geopolitical advantage. Although there were internal disagreements over whether Taipei should immediately move to acquire nuclear weapons, the government began building latent capabilities under the guise of civilian projects.

In 1955, Taiwan and the United States reached an agreement for cooperation on the peaceful uses of atomic energy that kick-started Taiwan’s nuclear program, allowing the KMT government to obtain key technologies and send scientists and military personnel abroad for training and education. Although Taipei officially renounced nuclear weapons in exchange for Washington’s assistance with civilian projects, in practice leaders hedged their bets, cultivating expertise that could be directed toward other ends.

Taiwan’s covert nuclear weapons program began in earnest following China’s first successful nuclear test in 1964. The test shattered Taiwan’s sense of security. Although the United States had committed itself to Taiwan in the 1955 Mutual Defense Treaty, the KMT government feared abandonment, especially after the White House rebuffed its calls to strike mainland Chinese nuclear facilities. Leaders also worried that proliferation would bolster Beijing’s status in the international community at Taipei’s expense. Once Beijing crossed this threshold, the KMT government doubled down on its own nuclear weapons program. To spearhead these efforts, leaders established the Institute of Nuclear Energy Research, which was closely linked to the military—although the government publicly insisted that its activities were exclusively civilian.

In 1969, Taiwan purchased a natural uranium-fueled, heavy water-moderated research reactor, known as the Taiwan Research Reactor, from Canada. (This kind of reactor is conducive to the production of weapons-grade plutonium.) From there, the government tried to acquire other critical technologies, including plutonium reprocessing facilities, from foreign suppliers—although Washington, increasingly suspicious of Taipei’s intentions, thwarted many of these sales. Nevertheless, Taiwan’s weaponization research and indigenous capabilities progressed, albeit at a smaller scale and slower pace than originally planned.

Despite its covert plans, Taiwan signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968 and ratified it in 1970, likely hoping to generate goodwill from the international community. But in 1971, the U.N. recognized the People’s Republic of China, based on the mainland, as the “only legitimate representatives of China,” kicking Taiwan, otherwise known as the Republic of China, out of the multilateral body. By extension, Taiwan lost its membership in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and International Atomic Energy Association, compounding the government’s anxieties about declining international support. This decision also made it harder for the international community to monitor the island’s nuclear facilities and enforce nonproliferation norms, precisely as nuclear weapons became more appealing for both status and security reasons. Taiwan’s concerns became even more acute after then-U.S. President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972.


As its weapons program took off, Taiwan also began building nuclear power plants. The KMT had ambitious plans to transform the island into a modern, industrial economy, but the 1973 oil crisis demonstrated the perils of Taiwan’s lack of indigenous energy resources. Nuclear energy emerged as a viable alternative to imported fossil fuels since the island already possessed the requisite expertise and infrastructure. The growth of nuclear power facilitated the growth of industry on the island; without it, it’s difficult to imagine that Taiwan would be the leader of the global semiconductor supply chain today.

As Taiwan’s nuclear power sector grew, its leaders used civilian programs to justify proliferation-sensitive activities, but their cover wasn’t entirely convincing. In 1977, after U.S. and International Atomic Energy Association inspectors unearthed further evidence that Taiwan was engaging in illicit research and diverting materials from the Taiwan Research Reactor, Washington decided to intervene. Although it downplayed Taiwan’s capabilities in public, in private the Carter administration threatened to impose sanctions and cut off military assistance unless Taiwan refocused on exclusively peaceful applications. Taiwan’s growing dependence on nuclear power enhanced Washington’s leverage because the island relied on the United States for reactor fuel and technical support. Washington and Taipei ultimately reached a secret agreement in which the latter promised, among other things, to curtail sensitive activities, export irradiated fuel, and modify the Taiwan Research Reactor to curb plutonium production, functionally making it harder for scientists to amass enough fissile material to secretly build a bomb.

Although Taiwan begrudgingly complied with many of these terms, implementation was slow, and the military in particular was dissatisfied by the government’s capitulation to U.S. demands. These frustrations assumed a new urgency in December 1978, when the Carter administration announced that it would terminate the U.S.-Republic of China Mutual Defense Treaty and formally recognize the People’s Republic of China, continuing the Nixon administration’s rapprochement with Beijing. This decision precipitated a renewed Taiwanese focus on nuclear weapons—this time with the military in the driver’s seat.

The second act in Taiwan’s proliferation history was fraught. Although the termination of the mutual defense treaty emboldened domestic actors who favored weaponization, the island still relied on the United States for military and economic support. Nor did Taiwanese decision-makers appear to agree on the ultimate goal of a revived nuclear weapons program. While some hoped to quietly develop a small arsenal, others, including then-President Chiang Ching-kuo, apparently favored only acquiring the ingredients to rapidly assemble a bomb (more like the hedging posture of states such as Japan). All these plans were contingent on avoiding detection by the United States or China until the program was sufficiently advanced. Yet past a certain point, keeping things under wraps would have been difficult—and extremely risky. If secrecy failed, Taipei risked angering Beijing and alienating Washington in one fell swoop.

As it turns out, Taipei’s attempts at obfuscation were already compromised. The deputy director of the Institute of Nuclear Energy Research, Chang Hsien-yi, was a CIA mole who had been surreptitiously passing information to the United States for years because he feared the covert weapons program would trigger an unwanted war with China. In January 1988, Chang sent his wife and children on vacation to Tokyo Disneyland and drove to a CIA safehouse. The family was reunited in Seattle a few days later and placed under witness protection.

Armed with new proof of malfeasance, the Reagan administration confronted Taipei. Exposed yet again and facing the prospect of U.S. abandonment and Chinese ire, the government agreed to unequivocally dismantle its nuclear weapons program. This included shutting down the Taiwan Research Reactor, shipping heavy water off the island so the reactor could not be restarted, exporting irradiated fuel, and disabling covert facilities and research programs. By the 1990s, Taiwan had functionally abandoned its nuclear weapons ambitions, but its nuclear history was far from over.

The demise of Taiwan’s nuclear weapons program coincided with a profound shift in its domestic politics. Up to this point, the KMT had presided over Taiwan’s entire nuclear history, maintaining an often brutal political monopoly over the island. By the mid-1980s, however, pro-democracy groups were gaining traction, as economic growth and dissatisfaction with decades of KMT repression fueled popular demands for reform. In 1987, the government lifted martial law and began preparing for a new era of open elections.

At the vanguard of this process was the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). When the DPP broke onto the scene, nuclear energy was vital to Taiwan’s economy. Globally, however, faith in nuclear power was beginning to wane. Infamous accidents sparked fears about nuclear safety, first at Three Mile Island in 1979, then at Chernobyl in 1986—as chance would have it, the very year the DPP was founded. This rise in anti-nuclear sentiment was also fueled by revelations that the Taiwanese government had used Orchid Island, an indigenous homeland, as a nuclear waste facility. The nascent party tapped into global momentum and made opposition to nuclear power one of its organizing principles, a means of courting attention abroad while distinguishing itself from the KMT at home.

The timing of these developments, however, led to a conflation of Taiwan’s nuclear weapons and nuclear energy programs. Even now, many Taiwanese associate anything nuclear with the military dictatorship. The same forces that shaped the island’s transition away from authoritarian rule thus shaped attitudes toward nuclear power; in other words, the politicization of nuclear energy was a byproduct of Taiwan’s democratization.

Activists clad in white radiation-proof gear lie on barrels marked with radiation in protest.Activists clad in white radiation-proof gear lie on barrels marked with radiation in protest.

Activists clad in white radiation-proof gear lie on barrels marked with radiation to protest against a planned nuclear power plant in Taiwan in October 2007.TAO-CHUAN YEH/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

In the short term, growing opposition to nuclear power did not negate its practical role in Taiwan’s energy makeup. The KMT maintained that nuclear power was the only way to avoid dependence on fossil fuel imports, and in 1999, a KMT-led government broke ground on a long-planned fourth nuclear power plant called Lungmen, which would have included the first Generation III reactors built outside Japan. When the DPP captured the presidency for the first time in 2000, the newly elected cabinet suspended construction. Yet it backtracked just a year later, after various legal and political challenges. Despite the opposition of many activists, work at Lungmen continued over the next decade, although it was plagued by delays, controversies, and cost overruns.

In 2011, another accident, this time at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant, decisively tilted the scales against nuclear power in Taiwan. Like Japan, Taiwan is prone to seismic activity, and the Fukushima accident revived anti-nuclear sentiments on the island and throughout the region. Taipei became the single largest donor to Fukushima’s victims, and thousands of Taiwanese took to the streets to challenge their government’s continued reliance on nuclear energy. Fearing public unrest, in 2014 the government again halted construction at Lungmen, even though work was nearly complete. Although Taiwan’s president at the time, KMT leader Ma Ying-jeou, supported the project, he backed down following mass protests, including a hunger strike by Lin Yi-hsiung, a former DPP chairman and hero of Taiwan’s pro-democracy movement. In 2016, the DPP campaigned on the promise of a “nuclear-free homeland,” and after a historic victory the party started the process of decommissioning Taiwan’s reactors as their licenses expired.

Solar cell devices in the foreground of a port in Taiwan.Solar cell devices in the foreground of a port in Taiwan.

Thin-film solar cell devices, designed to convert light energy into electrical energy, on top of a building at Port of Suao in Taiwan on Nov. 28, 2023. I-HWA CHENG/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

In other respects, however, the DPP’s energy policies have come up short. The decision to phase out nuclear power has left Taiwan more dependent on imported fuel precisely as global energy prices skyrocket and the domestic need for clean and reliable energy becomes more acute.

Recognizing the enduring challenge of energy insecurity—and the growing imperative to reduce carbon emissions—current President Tsai Ing-wen promised that renewables would generate 20 percent of Taiwan’s electricity by 2025. But Taiwan has repeatedly missed these targets; renewables currently account for only 8 percent. Taipei has doubled down on offshore wind projects, since the island’s mountainous terrain precludes large-scale solar development. Although technological advances or regulatory reforms may give the sector a boost, expansion is limited by available space. Turbines located in the Taiwan Strait would also be vulnerable in a crisis, and many investors are wary about supporting projects situated in such a precarious geopolitical location.

Renewables might improve Taiwan’s resilience down the line, but they are unlikely to be sufficient anytime soon. In the meantime, the island will continue to rely heavily on coal (42 percent) and natural gas (nearly 39 percent) for electricity generation, making it one of the dirtiest power users in the region. This presents challenges for Taiwan’s sizable industrial base. The Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company alone accounts for more than 6 percent of the island’s total energy consumption, and demand is only going up. Industry leaders also worry that failure to meet climate targets will reduce export competitiveness.


Meanwhile, a more ambitious and militarily capable China is making it even harder to separate energy security from geopolitics. The Chinese navy regularly rehearses blockade and quarantine scenarios that underscore its ability to disrupt Taiwan’s energy supply chains. While Taipei is taking steps to deepen its strategic stockpiles, current storage facilities for liquefied natural gas in particular are inadequate and vulnerable to a potential blockade.

These dynamics have resurfaced questions about the future of nuclear power in Taiwan. Although anti-nuclear sentiment remains salient, when the DPP held a referendum on its phase-out policy in November 2018, 59 percent of voters rejected it, citing environmental concerns and the perils of energy insecurity. And during the recent elections, Lai’s opponents endorsed proposals to reconsider the Lungmen project and keep remaining reactors online past 2025.

For now, as incoming president, Lai remains committed to decommissioning Taiwan’s final reactors, although in October he said he wouldn’t rule out “the use of safe, waste-free nuclear.” Some reports also suggest that policymakers are looking into keeping nuclear reactors on standby in case of emergency, but it is not clear what this would entail.

If Taiwan does rethink its nuclear phase-out, it won’t be alone. South Korea and Japan are reinvesting in their nuclear enterprises in response to climate and security concerns. That said, implementing a reversal would likely be more challenging in Taiwan, especially with the DPP at the helm. Anti-nuclear sentiments are ingrained in the party’s political DNA, and policymakers’ reaction to the 2018 referendum suggests they are hesitant to buck this legacy.

Leaders would also have to contend with various practical challenges. Taiwan’s viable reactors are at the end of their 40-year lifespans. Although life extensions are possible pending revisions to licensing procedures, over time the risks of an aging nuclear infrastructure in a seismically active area will only increase. Restarting work on the more advanced reactors at Lungmen might address these concerns, but policymakers should be realistic about costs and timelines. In 2019, state-owned energy company Taiwan Power concluded that the project would not be commercially viable for six to seven years, and estimates have likely increased due to the erosion of nuclear expertise on the island and the physical degradation of the site. Industry leaders have expressed interest in more advanced nuclear technologies, such as Small Modular Reactors, which some argue are safer than older models. While this may be a promising option in the future, the technology is not quite there yet.

Even if policymakers could agree on it, nuclear energy is no silver bullet. Because of domestic opposition, Taipei still hasn’t found a permanent solution for storing and disposing of nuclear waste. Nuclear energy also isn’t impervious to blockades, since Taiwan must import reactor fuel (although these supplies can sustain continuous energy production for months once on the island). Perhaps more worrying, the situation at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant has underscored just how dangerous it can be when conflict breaks out near nuclear infrastructure. None of these problems are easy to solve, and policymakers must consider the vulnerabilities that come with having nuclear energy programs alongside the risks of eliminating them.

But given the immediate ramifications of energy insecurity—both for the prospects of deterring Chinese aggression and for the globally significant industries located on the island—the next Taiwanese government should invite serious and specific conversations about the tradeoffs before dismissing the nuclear option altogether. Although decades of politicization have charged debates, nuclear energy programs are inherently technical endeavors. Reviving them only becomes more difficult when governments allow experience, expertise, and infrastructure to atrophy.

Taiwan now finds itself backed into something of a corner by its own colorful history. How the Lai administration responds at this inflection point may determine whether the island’s nuclear legacy lives on, or whether it gives up these ghosts once and for all.

Source: Foreign Policy