By Kingston Reif and Madeleine Foley
Updated by Usha Sahay
- A fissile material cutoff treaty would ban the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons purposes. Fissile materials, principally highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium, are the essential ingredients for building nuclear weapons and powering nuclear reactors. The effective control and elimination of fissile materials is an essential step toward nuclear disarmament.
- In 2011, the global stockpile of HEU was approximately 1440 tons, enough for approximately 60,000 simple nuclear fission weapons. According to the IAEA, 25 kg of HEU is necessary to make a first-generation implosion bomb of the Nagasaki type.
Approximately 98 percent of the global stockpile of HEU is located in the Nuclear Weapon States: the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China. The global stockpile of separated plutonium is about 495 tons. About half of this stockpile is used for civilian purposes and continues to grow.
According to the IAEA, 8 kg of plutonium is necessary to make a first-generation implosion bomb of the Nagasaki-type. The United States estimates that as little as 4 kg of plutonium would be enough to make a weapon.
- India and Pakistan (and possibly Israel and North Korea) are the only states that continue to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. The United States, United Kingdom, Russia, and France have officially declared an end to their production for weapons. China has unofficially halted its production.
- A fissile material cutoff was initially discussed in 1946 in the Acheson-Lilienthal Report on the international control of atomic energy and the Baruch Plan. President Dwight Eisenhower officially proposed a cutoff in 1956, a suggestion the Soviets opposed until January 1989, when Mikhail Gorbachev first supported the idea.
At the time, President George H.W. Bush rejected the proposal
for fear of undermining the U.S. nuclear deterrent.
- In 1993, at the suggestion of President Bill Clinton, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted Resolution 48/75L, which called for a “non-discriminatory, multi-lateral and internationally and effectively verifiable treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.”
- In 1995, the United Nations Conference on Disarmament (CD) established a committee to discuss the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT).
- In 2000, during the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review and Extension Conference, the parties agreed to begin negotiations in an effort to complete a FMCT within five years.
Although the Conference concluded no such treaty by 2005, renewed interest in arms reduction and non-proliferation issues has increased interest in negotiating a verifiable FMCT.
- In January 2006, the International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM) was founded to address the technical challenges of securing and reducing stockpiles of fissile material. The IPFM is composed of non-proliferation experts from both nuclear weapon and non-nuclear weapon states.
- On May 18, 2006, the George W. Bush administration submitted a draft FMCT at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva that would not contain any verification provisions, would ban new production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium for use in nuclear weapons for 15 years, and would enter into force with only the five established nuclear weapon states.
- In April 2009, President Obama declared that “the United States will seek a new treaty that verifiably ends the production of fissile materials intended for use in state nuclear weapons.”
- For several years, the next round of FMCT negotiations has been blocked by Pakistan, which has reservations about rival India gaining access to nuclear materials. Pakistan declared a renewed opposition to the treaty in January 2011.
- In August 2011, the 5 original nuclear weapons states met in Geneva to discuss options for moving beyond the current impasse negotiations for a FMCT.
- In general, the Nuclear Weapon States prefer a treaty that bans only the production of new fissile material for weapons purposes and would not address pre-existing civilian fissile materials and weapons materials that have been declared excess for military use. China, India, and Pakistan are not sure if they have enough fissile material to meet future defense needs and may want to produce more. Doubts remain in Russia, the United States, and other countries about the intrusiveness and cost of verification.
- Non-Nuclear Weapon States generally view a FMCT as a step toward the elimination of nuclear weapons. They therefore desire a treaty that would prevent civilian stocks and stocks declared in excess for military use from being diverted for use in weapons
- Israel strongly opposes a FMCT because it does not believe that a FMCT would be an adequate safeguard against Iranian development of nuclear weapons. Israel’s position has been that nuclear disarmament issues can only be dealt with in the context of a broader strategy for regional peace
- China has traditionally linked its support for a FMCT to the United States and other parties’ cooperation on a treaty for the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS). China also worries about revealing the precise size of its total fissile-material inventory, given its propensity to be opaque about aspects of its nuclear program, and believes that a FMCT should not restrict weapons use of existing fissile material.
- Russia officially supports a verifiable ban on the production of fissile material for weapons purposes to which every state with enrichment programs and the capability to produce a nuclear weapon is a signatory. This includes India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan, all of whom have strong reservations about the treaty.
- In 2008, Pakistan issued a letter to the President of the CD outlining its position on a FMCT. In light of its view that India possesses a larger stockpile of fissile material, it wants a verifiable treaty that addresses past, present, and future production of fissile material. Pakistan’s opposition has blocked FMCT negotiations for several years. In January 2011, Pakistan renewed its opposition to a FMCT, citing concerns about India’s fissile material stockpile.
- Though North Korea signed on to the CD agenda to discuss a FMCT, it announced a step-up in plutonium production and threatened to enrich uranium amid international criticism for its missile tests in May 2009.
- While the draft FMCT submitted by the George W. Bush administration did not contain any verification provisions, a verifiable treaty is important for numerous reasons. First, verification creates trust and builds confidence that the treaty’s requirements are being observed. Second, many Non-Nuclear Weapon States oppose the fact that they must accept far more intrusive international safeguards over their civilian nuclear facilities than the Nuclear Weapon States. A verifiable FMCT could begin to rectify this imbalance. Third, a verifiable FMCT could serve as a model for verifying the elimination of fissile material in the Nuclear Weapons States.
- The IPFM assumes that verification of a FMCT that covers both future production and pre-existing stocks would be overseen by the IAEA Safeguards Division and cover uranium enrichment facilities, reprocessing facilities, material declared in excess for military use, and HEU for use in naval-propulsion reactor fuel. The Safeguards Division would have to greatly expand its operations to perform the intrusive searches necessary for verification.
It would also require a larger budget, a cost that countries may be loath to incur.
- Both President Barack Obama and former Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain campaigned in support of a FMCT.
- In a speech in Prague in April 2009, President Obama announced the need for a treaty that “verifiably ends the production of fissile materials intended for use in state nuclear weapons.” Obama’s commitment inspires confidence that the FMCT will be given the consideration it deserves as an important step toward eliminating the threat of nuclear weapons to global peace and security.
- On May 29, 2009, Obama restated his commitment to the passage of a verifiable FMCT and commended the Conference on Disarmament on its resumption of FMCT talks. For the first time since 1996, the 65-nation Conference on Disarmament unanimously agreed on a 2009 agenda to resume arms control talks. The Conference agreed to set up a working group to carry out full negotiations on “an international ban on the production of new nuclear bombing making material.”
Though the consensus is a sign of progress, many parties are likely to maintain their reservations about a FMCT.
- The United States has indicated willingness to overcome the existing impasse by pursuing FMCT negotiations outside of the Conference on Disarmament, operating instead through informal and formal discussions.
- Within the United States, bipartisan support exists for a verifiable FMCT. Both the bipartisan Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States and the Council on Foreign Relations Task Force on U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy endorsed a verifiable treaty that ends the production of fissile material for weapons purposes. In a June 3, 2009 Senate floor statement, Senator McCain again endorsed a FMCT.
- However, strong Republican opposition to Obama’s nuclear weapons agenda persists, with former Senator John Kyl (R-AZ) and Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) having led the charge against the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). It remains to be seen if enough Republicans will support a verifiable FMCT to ensure ratification.