updated 10/13/2004 8:16:53 AM ET 2004-10-13T12:16:53

Taiwan appears to have conducted experiments with plutonium — a key component of nuclear weapons — up to the mid-1980s, diplomats said Wednesday, citing environmental tests taken by the U.N. atomic watchdog agency.

The diplomats told The Associated Press that preliminary samples taken in Taiwan by inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency indicated that plutonium separation experiments probably continued until about 20 years ago.

Officials at the Vienna-based IAEA had no immediate comment.

Taiwan is believed to have had a nuclear weapons research program dating back to the 1960s that was stopped in the 1970s and briefly revived in the 1980s.

The agency’s inspections and testing are being conducted as part of voluntary extra controls on Taiwan’s peaceful nuclear program agreed to by the government.

One of the diplomats, who is familiar with the IAEA, cautioned against drawing parallels between Taiwan and South Korea, whose government recently acknowledged that its scientists once dabbled in extracting plutonium and enriching uranium — both of which can be used to make nuclear arms. Face-off across the Taiwan Strait

While the South Korean revelations were new, the fact that Taiwan had engaged in nuclear weapons research after China exploded its first bomb in the 1960s was common knowledge, he said.

The agency was not expecting to find new experiments with possible weapons applications beyond the mid-1980s, said the diplomat. “But there will be new things they did not discover in the past” about the previously known program because of the extra access Taiwan was now granting agency inspectors, he said.

No other details were available.

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