The security benefits of a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from the “Global Fissile Material Report 2008: Scope and Verification of a Fissile Material (Cutoff) Treaty.” The complete report can be found here.

The major challenge in creating the simple fission weapons that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki was to make sufficient quantities of the necessary fissile materials–highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium respectively. Producing fissile materials still remains the critical obstacle in any new nuclear weapon program and for any country seeking a larger nuclear arsenal. For more than 50 years, this recognition has underpinned both the support for and opposition to the adoption of a binding international treaty banning the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons.

In December 1993, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for negotiation of a “nondiscriminatory, multilateral, and effectively verifiable treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.” The resolution declared that the General Assembly was “convinced” that a treaty meeting these criteria “would be a significant contribution to nuclear nonproliferation in all its aspects.”

Since nuclear weapon states under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) have all stopped producing fissile material for weapons, the core concern for many states is how a treaty will deal with the stockpiles of weapons-usable material accumulated worldwide. The global stockpiles of HEU total between 1,400 and 2,000 metric tons, while the current global stockpile of separated plutonium is about 500 tons. Most of this material is in the possession of the nuclear weapon states–predominantly the United States and Russia.

Therefore, there’s disagreement today over whether a treaty on fissile materials should ban only the future production of such materials for weapons or if it also should deal with fissile material in civilian use and even stocks of fissile material reserved for fuel for naval and other military reactors.

A Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT) would strengthen the nonproliferation regime, reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism, and help lay a basis for nuclear disarmament by:

  • Meeting international demands made by the General Assembly and commitments made by the NPT weapon states;
  • Extending to the nine nuclear weapon states the legal ban on production of fissile material for weapons that currently applies only to non-nuclear weapon states;
  • Further reducing the discriminatory aspects of the NPT by extending mandatory safeguards to nuclear facilities and materials in nuclear weapon states;
  • Improving national monitoring and regulation of fissile material;
  • Extending into the nuclear weapon states institutions and practices necessary for the eventual achievement of a nuclear weapons free world; and
  • Helping to make nuclear weapons reductions irreversible.

Meeting international demands and commitments

An FMCT addresses the long-standing demands of the international community for a verifiable ban on the production of fissile material for weapons. This was spelled out first by the General Assembly in November 1957 in Resolution 1148, which called for a treaty that would include:

  • “the cessation of the production of fissionable materials for weapons purposes,”
  • “the complete devotion of future production of fissionable materials to non-weapons purposes under effective international control,” and
  • “the reduction of stocks of nuclear weapons through a program of transfer, on an equitable and reciprocal basis and under international supervision, of stocks of fissionable materials from weapons uses to non-weapons uses.”

In March 1995, the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament agreed to begin negotiations on a treaty. Almost simultaneously, the final document of the 1995 NPT Review Conference called for “[t]he immediate commencement and early conclusion of negotiations on a nondiscriminatory and universally applicable convention banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, in accordance with the statement of the Special Coordinator of the Conference on Disarmament and the mandate contained therein.” This call for action was reiterated as one of thirteen steps agreed to at the 2000 NPT Review Conference, which commits NPT state parties (including the five nuclear weapon states–United States, Russia, Britain, France and China) to negotiating an FMCT.

The continued delay and possible failure to achieve a treaty would heighten already significant concerns about the prospects of realizing other NPT commitments made by the weapon states.

Universalizing the legal ban on production of fissile material for weapons

All non-weapon states party to the NPT have accepted the obligation not to produce fissile material for weapons. And although the NPT doesn’t require the parties that joined as nuclear weapon states to do so, four of the five have declared officially that they have ended production of fissile material for weapons, and the fifth, China, has indicated informally that it has suspended such production. An FMCT would turn this production moratorium into a legally binding commitment.

The other four nuclear weapon states–North Korea, Israel, India, and Pakistan–are not parties to the NPT. That said, North Korea has also recently ended its production of plutonium and is committed to ending its nuclear weapons program and returning to the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state. India, Pakistan, and perhaps Israel are believed to be still producing fissile materials in their weapon programs and have refused to join the moratorium. Ending fissile material production for weapons is particularly important in South Asia, where Pakistan and India both appear to be increasing their rates of production of fissile materials for weapons.

An FMCT would create a requirement for Israel, India, and Pakistan to end their production of fissile material for weapons and bring facilities under safeguards without having to join the NPT as non-weapon states. (Israel, India, and Pakistan cannot join the NPT as weapon states since it recognizes as weapon states only those countries that tested a nuclear explosive device before January 1, 1967.)

Reducing discrimination between nuclear weapon states and non-weapon states

The NPT requires mandatory International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards in non-nuclear weapon states, while requiring none in nuclear weapon states. This inequitable application of safeguards has raised concerns in non-weapon states about additional costs and vulnerability of proprietary commercial information.

The nuclear weapon states have sought to address this issue by making voluntary offers to open some of their facilities and materials for safeguarding. The United States, followed by Britain and later France, in the 1970s, and the Soviet Union and China in the 1980s, offered some facilities and materials for IAEA safeguarding. But in practice, the IAEA hasn’t been given enough resources to apply the safeguards.

For the first time, an FMCT would impose compulsory safeguards in nuclear weapon states that would, at a minimum, cover all production facilities.

Improving national accounting for monitoring of fissile-material stocks

Since the end of the Cold War, it has been discovered that accounting for fissile materials has often been very loose in weapon states. An FMCT would require that–at least in their civilian nuclear sectors–nuclear weapon states meet internationally agreed standards for the control and accounting of fissile materials.

Making nuclear-weapon reductions irreversible

The United States, Russia, Britain, and France have all announced reductions in the size of their nuclear arsenals from their Cold War peaks. For the United States, the number of warheads peaked at about 30,000 in the mid-1960s, and the Soviet/Russian arsenal reached 40,000 warheads in the 1980s. In the case of the United States and Russia, reductions have amounted to tens of thousands of weapons. Britain and France have reduced proportionately by hundreds of weapons each.

Some of the material from these weapon reductions has been declared as excess to military requirements by the United States, Russia and Britain. A total of about 700 tons of HEU and almost 100 tons of plutonium (not all of which is from weapons) have been declared excess. This combined total is enough for more than 30,000 weapons.

An FMCT that obliged states not to use for weapons fissile material either in civilian use or declared as excess for weapons would capture these materials and ensure that nuclear weapon reductions were irreversible. If future arms reductions were accompanied by declarations that the material in these weapons would be placed under international safeguards, the global stock of fissile materials would continue to be irreversibly reduced.

Creating institutions for a nuclear-weapon-free world

Any plausible enduring global prohibition on the production, possession, and use of nuclear weapons would require that the nuclear weapon states eliminate their weapons and place all fissile material stocks and production facilities under strict international safeguards. The FMCT creates many of the norms, mechanisms, and practices that would constitute the core of such regime, including the accounting for and safeguarding of stocks of fissile materials and the extension of mandatory international safeguards into the nuclear weapon states.

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