Act Now on Fissile Material Treaty

Daryl G. Kimball

International efforts to curb the spread and buildup of nuclear weapons arsenals greatly depend on controlling the production and stockpiles of the key ingredients for the bomb: highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium. Negotiating a global agreement to cut off the production of these fissile materials for weapons purposes has long been a goal of the United States. Now, however, the Bush administration may be reversing its support for this common sense proposal.

Since the early 1990s, states at the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament (CD) have sought to begin formal talks on a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT). FMCT negotiations have been stymied by China since 1999 in an attempt to gain leverage on its priority issue: a treaty for the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS). Unwilling to constrain its ambitious plans for missile defense systems that could include space-based weapons, the United States has said there is no arms race in outer space and will only allow exploratory discussions on the subject.

Successive presidents of the CD and, more recently, a group of five ambassadors have tried to bridge the political differences by proposing to start negotiations on a FMCT in an ad hoc committee, as well as to simultaneously begin substantive discussions on PAROS and general discussions on nuclear disarmament.

Last August, China indicated it could agree to this formula. The United States has since balked. In November, the U.S. representative to the UN voted for a resolution supporting a FMCT but noted that the United States had, after nine years of support, initiated a “review” of the concept. In January, Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control Steve Rademaker told Arms Control Today, “We are looking at the threshold question, does a FMCT make sense?”

From the U.S. perspective, moving ahead on FMCT negotiations is a no-brainer. A universal measure, it would reinforce the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and voluntary nuclear export controls, as well as help contain the nuclear programs of the three NPT holdout states: India, Israel, and Pakistan.

The five major nuclear-weapon states—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—have all indicated they are no longer producing fissile material for weapons purposes. On the other hand, India and Pakistan have active production programs for both HEU and plutonium, and it is likely that their stocks of weapon-grade material are increasing. It is not clear whether Israel is continuing to produce fissile material for weapons purposes. Under the guise of civilian nuclear power research, other states, including Iran, have built facilities capable of producing fissile material for weapons.

A FMCT and its additional verification system would augment existing efforts to detect and deter clandestine nuclear bomb production and acquisition efforts. In addition, FMCT talks could also produce confidence-building declarations from all states with nuclear weapons and/or HEU or plutonium stockpiles, as well as associated fabrication, reprocessing, and storage facilities.

There is no practical reason for the White House not to support initiation of FMCT negotiations under the compromise formulation. So far, however, it has not. In his February 11 speech outlining steps to restrict access to nuclear bomb material and related technologies, President George W. Bush failed even to mention a FMCT.

Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) has called a FMCT “an essential supplement” to the president’s proposals. In recent weeks, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency and key U.S. allies have also urged the United States to support FMCT negotiations. Though some states may not be enthusiastic, no other nation has registered its opposition.

The absence of continued strong support for a FMCT would doubtless undermine the legitimacy of other, vital U.S. nonproliferation objectives. Completion of a FMCT by 2005 and informal discussions on nuclear disarmament at the CD were two of 13 action steps to which all NPT states-parties committed themselves in May 2000. Yet, since taking office, the Bush administration has undermined almost every one of those measures and has sought to keep its nuclear weapons research, production, testing, and deployment options open.

In his speech about nuclear proliferation challenges, Bush cautioned that rising awareness and condemnation “means little unless it is translated into action.” The president would do well to heed his own advice and seize the opportunity to begin negotiations on a verifiable, global ban on the production of fissile materials for weapons.