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Everyone knows about the nuclear states: the U.S., Russia, China, the UK, and France, along with Pakistan, India, North Korea, and probably Israel. Another category of potential concern exists, though: nuclear-capable states.
FP looked at five of these back in October, but there are actually over 40 (pdf) nuclear-capable states, often defined as those that currently have or at some point had nuclear research reactors. The ability to build these indicates a certain level of technical expertise, and the reactors themselves can produce fissile material for use in weapons.
Taiwan, despite its lack of official statehood, has such a capability. It briefly pursued its own nuclear program following China's test in 1964 and then tried to build a secret facility in the late 1980s. And as the military buildup across the Taiwan Strait in China continues and Taiwan tests new missiles, this raises the question: How long would it take Taiwan to go nuclear?
The short answer: over two years. Nuclear weapons programs are complex endeavors that require scientific expertise, money, effective bureaucracy, political support, hard-to-acquire materials, and more money. Building one from scratch could take anywhere from 2-8 years. U.S. Intelligence estimated it would take Japan 3-5 years in 1967, for instance, a time frame that probably hasn't changed much. Taiwan, a country with technological expertise comparable to Japan's, would probably take a similar amount of time. The only exception would be if either had sufficient weapons-grade nuclear material (and a host of other critical items) hidden away; in that case they could likely slap together a crude bomb in around six months.
There are probably no such clandestine stockpiles in Taiwan, however. U.S. pressure forced Taiwan to give up nuclear weapons programs twice, and Taiwanese officials probably have little desire to strain the alliance on this topic again today. Tawian does have a civilian nuclear power program, which helps to maintain some, but by no means all, of the technical chops relevant to building a nuclear device (In February, Bloomberg reported that the country's fourth civilian nuclear power plant, slated to go online in 2009, will likely be delayed by two years). But Taiwan currently has no reprocessing facilities of its own, and its nuclear laboratories are monitored regularly by the International Atomic Energy Agency. In order to get the bomb quietly, Taiwan would have to source nuclear materials on the black market without the world noticing, a risky endeavor for a state that depends heavily on Western support for its unique quasi-independent status. That's highly unlikely, so paranoid types can rest easy, for now.
Eric Hundman is a science fellow at the Center for Defense Information. His research focuses on emerging technology, terrorism and nuclear policy, including the conventionalization of nuclear forces. He contributes a series of posts for Passport on nuclear technology called "Nuke Notes."