Another Chance for the Fissile Production Ban

Daryl G. Kimball

Cutting off production of fissile material—plutonium or highly enriched uranium—has been on the international nonproliferation and arms control agenda for decades. But since the late 1990s, the concept has been relegated to the diplomatic shadows as talks on a global verifiable fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) have sputtered due to differences over negotiating priorities. The current impasse is due to U.S. opposition to the negotiation of a verifiable treaty or to discussions on other arms topics at the 65-nation Conference on Disarmament.

Now, with its controversial proposal for full civil nuclear assistance to India, the Bush administration has, perhaps inadvertently, put the fissile material cutoff back in the spot light. To jump-start progress on an FMCT and help ensure that civil nuclear trade with India will not aid its weapons program, Congress and the international community must press for concrete action on the fissile production cutoff.

Last month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President George W. Bush agreed to a plan that would “separate” India’s civil and military nuclear programs and phase-in safeguards on more but far from all of its civil nuclear reactors. Bush then proposed India-specific exemptions to U.S. laws and the guidelines of the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), which restrict trade with non-nuclear-weapon states, including India, that do not accept safeguards over all their nuclear facilities.

Singh also agreed that India would “assume the same responsibilities and practices” as other countries with advanced nuclear capabilities. Bush administration officials such as Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns acknowledge that “the United States and many of the other nuclear powers do have a moratorium on fissile material production.” On March 23, he told reporters that the administration would “encourage other countries to adopt the same practice.”

In the world of nuclear politics, however, encouragement alone is not enough. Burns and other U.S. negotiators failed to win any tangible commitments from India to limit its fissile material production capacity. Singh proudly declared, “[T]here will be no capping of our strategic program,” and “no constraint has been placed on our right to construct new facilities for strategic purposes.”

Indeed, the plan would allow India to exclude from safeguards all of its military production facilities, plus as many as eight additional power reactors and existing spent nuclear fuel. India’s fast breeder reactors, which are particularly well suited for weapons-grade plutonium production, would be kept off-limits.

As a result, a growing number of congressional members and NSG states believe the administration gave up too much and got few, if any, nonproliferation benefits. They are concerned that the proposal would implicitly endorse, if not indirectly assist the growth of India’s nuclear arsenal. Indeed, foreign nuclear reactor fuel supplies could free up India’s limited uranium reserves for the sole purpose of adding to its arsenal of 50-100 nuclear bombs. Not only would the U.S. proposal undermine the nonproliferation system, but it could also lead Pakistan to increase its fissile production and tempt China to resume fissile production for weapons.

Many policymakers are also asking why there should be a special loophole for a state that has not agreed to halt fissile material production or sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, as the international community has called on India to do. Following India’s and Pakistan’s 1998 nuclear blasts, the United States and the rest of the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1172, which urges both states to “stop their nuclear weapons development programmes [and] cease any further production of fissile material for nuclear weapons.”

U.S. and Indian diplomats have tried to deflect suggestions that the deal should place limits on India ’s bomb program, noting that India has declared support for U.S. efforts to negotiate an FMCT. This pledge means little given that India understandably prefers a verifiable cutoff treaty, a goal the Bush administration opposes and claims (incorrectly) is unattainable.

Given the current political stalemate in Geneva, talks might only begin if the United States finally agreed to negotiations on an FMCT “without prejudice” to the final outcome on verification and allowed discussions on other weapons issues of concern to China, Russia, and non-nuclear-weapon states. Getting talks started would be useful but insufficient. China, India, Pakistan, and possibly others could produce more material for weapons as negotiators spend years trying to resolve thorny differences over verification and other issues.

To leverage action on an FMCT and begin to address the flawed proposal for nuclear assistance to India, Congress and NSG member states should refuse to relax nuclear trade rules with India until it halts production of fissile material for weapons purposes. At the same time, they should urge others to halt fissile material production pending the conclusion of a verifiable FMCT. If they do not, the proposal for nuclear cooperation with India would constitute a dangerous sellout of core nonproliferation goals and could become the catalyst for an Asian nuclear arms race.