"[The Arms Control Association is an] 'exceptional organization that effectively addresses pressing national and international challenges with an impact that is disproportionate to its small size.'" 

– John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
January 19, 2011
U.S. Fissile Material Ban Plan Fizzles

Wade Boese

A U.S. government effort to begin negotiations this summer on a treaty banning production of two key ingredients for nuclear weapons fizzled when Washington failed to fully explain its new position toward the agreement.

After a prolonged review, the United States declared at the end of July that it would seek negotiations at the 65-member Conference on Disarmament (CD) on a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), which would forbid the production of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium for weapon purposes. A nuclear weapon cannot be made without one of these two fissile materials. As part of the announcement, the Bush administration overturned past U.S. policy by declaring it did not believe a final agreement could adequately detect cheating. (See ACT, September 2004.)

An American team of experts traveled to Geneva Sept. 1-2 to explain the revised U.S. assessment to its fellow CD members. The talks yielded no breakthrough.

U.S. officials spoke positively about the briefings afterward, but foreign diplomats said the team made little headway in persuading others that an FMCT is not verifiable. They said the U.S. delegation skirted a crucial point: whether the United States supports negotiations on the basis of a previously agreed March 1995 FMCT mandate calling for an “effectively verifiable” treaty or whether it wants a new mandate. CD decisions require consensus, and negotiations cannot start if a single member opposes them.

Washington has kept silent on the 1995 mandate, known as the Shannon mandate after the Canadian ambassador who helped craft it, and U.S. officials refused to discuss the matter in Geneva. U.S. officials said that their September briefings were only intended to provide a technical explanation of why the treaty could not be “effectively verifiable.”

It is unclear why the United States has not taken a stand on the 1995 mandate. Some speculate that the U.S. government has not arrived at a final position. Others believe that the United States wants to avoid breaking with many of its allies during an election year. Australia, Canada, and Japan firmly back the Shannon mandate.

In August and September interviews with Arms Control Today, administration officials suggested the existing mandate would be a nonstarter because they did not believe an “effectively verifiable” treaty was attainable. But many delegations assert that trying to replace or modify the 1995 mandate would only further gridlock the conference, which has not negotiated a treaty since the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996.

Canadian Ambassador Paul Meyer said in a Sept. 15 ACT interview that starting FMCT negotiations is “crucial” and their beginning “should not be complicated by any effort to reopen the existing mandate.” Meyer added that the mandate does not prescribe a result and allows all countries to raise their concerns during negotiations.

In their briefings, U.S. officials outlined what they perceive as treaty weaknesses that cheaters could use to their advantage. A Department of State official told reporters in Washington Sept. 1 that the administration believes the treaty could not be constructed in a way to detect noncompliance in a “timely fashion.”

In particular, U.S. officials argued that it would be difficult to assess whether a specific quantity of fissile material was produced before or after the treaty took effect. They also argued that HEU and plutonium could be produced for weapons under the cover of permitted activities, such as making fuel for naval propulsion reactors. Given these potential loopholes, U.S. officials charged that negotiating a verification regime would simply instill a “false sense of security” and needlessly delay an agreement.

Other countries hold that a verifiable treaty is feasible and essentially requires extending safeguards, such as inspections and monitoring measures, that are currently applied to the nuclear facilities of countries declared as non-nuclear-weapon states under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to the nuclear-armed states—both those acknowledged as such under the NPT and those widely viewed as de facto nuclear powers. Four of the NPT’s declared nuclear-weapon states—France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—have publicly halted fissile material production for weapons. The fifth, China, has reportedly done the same. Of the three non-NPT states armed with nuclear weapons, Israel’s production status is unclear, while India and Pakistan are suspected of currently making more material for bombs.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei weighed in on the debate Sept. 20, recommending that the conference redouble its efforts to negotiate a “non-discriminatory and internationally verifiable” FMCT. The IAEA, which verifies that non-nuclear-weapon states are not covertly pursuing nuclear weapons, reported in a 1995 paper that “[i]t is the IAEA Secretariat’s assessment that verification of a treaty banning the production of fissile materials would be possible through a verification system quite similar to the one applied for the IAEA safeguards system.”

The start of FMCT negotiations do not hinge solely on the United States finding common ground with other members on an FMCT, but on other issues too. Most other countries favor holding less formal talks on nuclear disarmament and the prevention of an arms race in outer space in parallel with FMCT negotiations. Yet, U.S. Ambassador Jackie W. Sanders told the conference July 29 that FMCT negotiations “must have a clean mandate that is not linked to other unrelated proposals.”

One European CD ambassador said in a Sept. 14 ACT interview that beginning any work in the conference without talks on nuclear disarmament and outer space would “never be acceptable” to China, Russia, and tens of others.
With so much ambiguity surrounding key U.S. positions, the CD closed its doors for the year as previously scheduled on Sept. 10 without launching any negotiations. It will reconvene Jan. 24, 2005.