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June 1, 2018
U.S. Unveils Draft Fissile Material Treaty

Wade Boese

At the 65-member Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva, the United States May 18 unveiled a draft treaty to end production of the two essential ingredients for building nuclear weapons. But prospects for negotiations on the proposal are slim because many countries disagree with key elements of the draft and with the U.S. insistence that the conference only address this issue.

The conference, which operates by consensus, last produced an accord in 1996. Since approval that year of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, members held unfruitful negotiations for a couple of weeks in August 1998. Otherwise, they have been stalemated even on beginning formal talks.

Contending that the CD has spent the last decade in “nearly meaningless exercises in rhetoric,” then-Acting Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation Stephen Rademaker urged conference members to devote their energies to negotiating a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), which would outlaw new production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons purposes. Rademaker, who left his position May 19, offered a draft text with the stated purpose of spurring negotiations toward completion of a treaty before the CD ends its annual session Sept. 15. He told reporters afterward that the draft U.S. agreement was not a “take it or leave it” proposition.

However, Rademaker made clear the United States was only willing to negotiate on an FMCT and nothing else. Deriding what he labeled as “an unconscionable tolerance for hostage-taking,” Rademaker argued, “it is time for delegations finally to acknowledge that the package approach…will never succeed.”

Specifically, he said the United States sees “no need…for the negotiation of new multilateral agreements on nuclear disarmament, outer space, or negative security assurances.” The last item refers to codifying statements by nuclear-armed states that they will not use such weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states.

All three issues are broadly supported among conference members, and the United States is generally recognized as the sole country blocking any talks on the prevention of an arms race in outer space. Washington, which has plans to place experimental missile interceptors in orbit, contends no arms race exists in outer space, so such talks are unnecessary.

Still, both China and Russia declared prevention of an arms race in outer space their top priority at the conference. In the two days preceding Rademaker’s speech, both countries reaffirmed their demand for a “balanced program.” Similarly, the Group of 21 developing countries holds that nuclear disarmament is its highest priority.

Aside from rigid divisions over what topics should be negotiated, many conference members also differ with the United States on the substance of a fissile material treaty. The two most significant issues of contention are whether the treaty should address existing stockpiles and whether it should have verification measures.

Several countries assert that a treaty on fissile materials should not only end future production for weapons but also prevent existing stockpiles from being used to build new weapons. Pakistani Ambassador Masood Khan further argued May 16 that stockpiles had to be dealt with because “inequalities should not be frozen and perpetuated.”

The U.S. draft, however, excludes stockpiles. “Existing stocks of fissile material…would be unaffected,” Rademaker declared. This is a position that China and Russia recently endorsed.

Rademaker also reiterated U.S. opposition to negotiating verification measures for an FMCT. He said it would be up to states to monitor each other’s compliance, and if a serious problem arose, the UN Security Council could be requested to look into the matter.

First enunciated in July 2004 (see "Bush Shifts Fissile Material Ban Policy" Sept. 2004), this U.S. stance broke with long-standing U.S. support for FMCT verification, as well as the CD’s 1995 decision to negotiate an “effectively verifiable” agreement. Washington argues that verification measures would not catch determined cheaters, while providing a false sense of security and prying too much into legitimate security concerns of states.

The Bush administration also asserts negotiating such provisions would stretch the negotiations out too long. “With every day that goes by, the value of an FMCT diminishes because there will come a point where countries that are currently producing fissile material have all…they could possibly want,” Rademaker stated.

That is apparently the case with France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, which have publicly declared they no longer produce fissile material for weapons. China also is understood to have ceased such production. India, Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea have not renounced such production.

Other conference members disapprove of the U.S. verification position. Australia, Brazil, and South Africa all voiced support for verification measures in May speeches but said the matter should be resolved in the negotiations themselves. Japan and Canada took similar tacks, although Canadian Ambassador Paul Meyer warned May 16 that “an FMCT which proves ultimately to be merely a vague declaratory statement of good intentions about future production does the international community a disservice.”

In a speech the day before Rademaker’s presentation, Indian Ambassador Jayant Prasad also argued that the verification question should be determined during the negotiations. However, he added, “[a]bsence of a verification mechanism may engender [a] lack of confidence in compliance with the treaty, encourage willful noncompliance, and lead to allegations and counter-allegations of noncompliance.” Following Rademaker’s presentation, Prasad said he would like to reaffirm his statement and that he hoped further talks “will help us collectively to move toward a consensus.”

Last year, the Bush administration unsuccessfully tried to get India to halt fissile material production for weapons as part of a U.S. initiative to resume civilian nuclear commerce with India (see "U.S.-Indian Nuclear Deal Simmers" June 2006). Instead, New Delhi merely reiterated its past commitment to support negotiations on an FMCT at the CD. Other governments, some U.S. lawmakers, and many nongovernmental nuclear experts have criticized the administration for failing to secure a more substantial commitment.

Rademaker suggested the timing of the U.S. FMCT proposal had nothing to do with these criticisms. “As far as why we’re doing this today as opposed to last month or next month, these kinds of things take time within a government,” he stated. But Department of State spokesperson Sean McCormack said May 18 that the fissile material matter with India has “been an issue for some people, so we’ve put that [draft text] out there.”

Despite challenging the conference to conclude negotiations on an FMCT this year, the United States currently does not have a permanent representative to the conference. President George W. Bush nominated Christina Rocca, former assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs, for the position May 11, but it is uncertain when the Senate will vote on her nomination.

Rademaker used Rocca’s nomination as an occasion to imply that the United States might reconsider its participation at the conference if there was no action on an FMCT. “I urge all delegations to work with us in order to ensure that she does not serve as the last U.S. ambassador to the CD,” he declared.