Since the NPT entered into force, the issue of fissile materials – i.e. material that can be used to produce nuclear weapons – has been very important. In 1993 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution that recommended early negotiations on an internationally verifiable treaty banning the production of fissile material.
A Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) has not yet been negotiated, though it has been discussed for decades in the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva. The FMCT would prohibit the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons purposes. Today, states disagree on the scope of an FMCT. Some states claim the treaty should only cover the production of fissile material. This would mean states with large existing stocks of weapons-grade material would not be affected much by the treaty. Other states want the treaty to include control and reductions of existing stocks, which would mean a much greater leap towards disarmament. There is also disagreement about verification and transparency in states’ stocks of nuclear materials. Many member states in the CD advocate negotiations on an FMCT should take place without preconditions – meaning states would deal with problems and disagreements as they arise.
An FMCT would help prevent both horizontal and vertical proliferation, making it harder for new states to acquire nuclear weapons and harder for states already possessing nuclear weapons to develop new weapons if production of the material for them is prohibited. A treaty that does not address reductions of existing stocks, possessed mainly by the US and Russia, would be much less potent in stopping vertical proliferation. If existing stocks are not addressed, countries possessing large amounts of weapons-grade material can continue producing new nuclear weapons. This would mean a continued imbalance between the nuclear “haves” and “have-nots”.
The need for a treaty
Even before the NPT entered into force in 1970, the issue of fissile materials – i.e. material that can be used to produce the chain reactions that characterize nuclear weapons – has been very important. In 1993, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution that recommended early negotiations on an internationally verifiable treaty banning the production of fissile material.
The Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament (CD) is the world’s sole body with a mandate to negotiate international disarmament and arms control treaties. It is the CD that mainly discusses the issue of a treaty controlling fissile materials – and has been discussing it for decades during which no substantial negotiations have taken place.
From the very beginning, one particular issue has been standing in the way of negotiations: existing stocks of nuclear weapons material. Some states (e.g., Pakistan and many non-nuclear weapon states) claim an FMCT should not only address production of fissile materials, but also reduce existing stocks. Other states (e.g., the US, the UK, and Japan) have insisted that the scope of the treaty be limited to production.
This obviously relates to the fact that the nuclear-weapon states, especially the US and Russia, have enormous amounts of fissile material in storage. The material can be used to produce new nuclear weapons; therefore these states are keen on keeping what they already have. Pakistan has its own stocks of fissile materials, but neighboring India has much larger stockpiles that Pakistan would rather see reduced, and so it is willing to bend on this point.
An FMCT that does not address existing stocks is seen by many as weak and useless, and they question whether it is better to have a weak treaty or no treaty at all. Even a treaty that only deals with future production will have to be verified, in order to ensure that all existing stocks of nuclear-weapons material are accounted for and strictly controlled.
Verification and scope
The non-nuclear-weapon States Parties to the NPT have already agreed to a certain level of inspection of their nuclear facilities. Nuclear-weapon states and states outside of the NPT are not inspected in the same way. A strong verification and reporting mechanism built into a future FMCT could come to terms with that problem. The system would be more equitable if inspections were conducted in nuclear-weapon states. Verification mechanisms also create better transparency and increased confidence among all states—nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states alike.
Many states share a common aim with an FMCT: to prevent terrorists from gaining access to fissile materials. A strong verification regime covering both existing stocks and future production would reduce the risk of leakage of fissile materials to terrorists. The US has expressed doubts concerning verification mechanisms, claiming that it will be difficult if not impossible to control States’ compliance with the treaty. The US also states that negotiations on verification would only make an already difficult process even more tortuous, and that verification mechanisms could lead states into a false sense of confidence.
Many states have suggested negotiations should be started in the CD despite differing opinions, and that problems can be addressed as they arise. Other states are concerned that commencing negotiations “without preconditions” will only enable powerful actors such as the US to block strong language, resulting in a watered-down treaty.
In 1995 the CD appointed Canadian Ambassador Gerald Shannon to find out member states’ opinions on the most efficient ways of negotiating an FMCT. The resulting “Shannon mandate” recommended that the CD appoint an ad hoc committee to address difficult issues such as existing stocks and verification, in order to facilitate commencement of negotiations.
At the NPT Review Conferences in 1995 and 2000, all states supported early commencement and conclusion of FMCT negotiations. The ad hoc committee suggested in the Shannon Mandate, however, never got to work.
For many years, Russia and China demanded that the CD address the issue of preventing an arms race in outer space as a condition of their support for FMCT negotiations. In 2003, both states withdrew their demands and agreed to start FMCT negotiations unconditionally. The US went a step further in May 2006, presenting a draft FMCT to the CD. Greenpeace International has also drafted an FMCT.
At the end of its last session of 2007, the CD seemed to be closer to negotiating an FMCT than ever before. Member States were close to an agreement that would make negotiations possible during the 2008 sessions. In his 23 January 2008 opening statement to the CD, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed his support for immediate negotiations. During the first session of 2008, many delegations to the CD expressed their willingness to commence FMCT negotiations.
In 2012, a resolution was adopted in the UN to appoint a Group of Governmental Experts (GGE), with a mandate to recommend ways to move forward on the FMCT. The group’s reports to the CD can be found on the Reaching Critical Will website.
Whatever hope there was during these past 10 years that the CD would get to work on an international treaty on fissile materials had evaporated by 2015.
Last update: August 24, 2015