Time for Leadership on the Fissile Cutoff

Daryl G. Kimball

Ending the production of fissile material—plutonium or highly enriched uranium (HEU)—for nuclear weapons is a long-sought and still vital nonproliferation objective. Last year, President Barack Obama pledged to “lead a global effort” to negotiate a verifiable fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), but talks at the 65-nation Conference on Disarmament (CD) remain blocked, as they have been for nearly a dozen years.

The impasse led the UN secretary-general to convene a high-level meeting September 24. Many of the 70-plus states represented, including the United States, singled out Pakistan for abusing the consensus decision-making rule in order to prevent the CD from implementing its work plan.

Calling out Pakistan is an overdue but insufficient step. Stronger, more creative leadership from Washington and other capitals is needed to achieve progress. Indeed, many delegations at the high-level meeting warned that if negotiations on an FMCT do not begin next year, “other options” should be considered. Given Pakistan’s hard-line position on an FMCT and the ability of any one state to block consensus, there is no reason to wait that long.

Although India and Pakistan have more than enough nuclear firepower to deter a nuclear attack, Pakistani leaders consider the proposed FMCT a “clear and present” danger because it would prevent Pakistan from matching India’s fissile stockpile and production potential. Pakistan insists that other nations agree to discuss limits on existing fissile material stocks before talks can begin.

The United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, and France have all declared a halt to fissile material production for weapons, in part because each possesses sizable reserves of fissile material. China, which is estimated to have 20 metric tons of HEU and 4 metric tons of separated plutonium, is believed to have halted production for weapons purposes. Israel retains a fissile production capability outside of safeguards, but is not believed to be producing more material. North Korea has a small plutonium-production capacity, which it is legally obligated to put under safeguards and shut down.

Rivals India and Pakistan, however, remain in a fissile production “race.” India produces plutonium for weapons at two dedicated reactors and is estimated to have about 700 kilograms of separated plutonium, which is enough for about 140 bombs. It produces new plutonium at a rate of about 30 kilograms per year.

Pakistan has about 2 metric tons of HEU for its nuclear weapons and about 100 kilograms of weapons plutonium, which is enough for about 100 bombs. Pakistan has one plutonium-production reactor, is building two additional military production reactors, and is increasing its reliance on plutonium weapons. Each reactor can produce about 10 kilograms of plutonium per year.

India and Pakistan have roughly equal quantities of separated fissile material, but Pakistan worries that India may extract plutonium from spent fuel generated by its unsafeguarded power reactors, which could provide enough material for several hundred more bombs. Civil nuclear cooperation deals between India and nuclear supplier states also may free up its domestic uranium supplies for additional plutonium production.

Pakistan’s concerns about an FMCT likely will not be alleviated as long as India’s production potential remains greater. France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States should use what leverage they have to encourage India to exercise greater global nonproliferation leadership and restraint. When he visits India in November, Obama should invite Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to declare that India will not increase its rate of fissile production and will put additional nonmilitary reactors under safeguards. The United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) could help monitor whether India sticks to such a pledge.

If the CD cannot begin work by the end of its first session next year, the United States should pursue parallel, open-ended talks involving the eight states with fissile production facilities that are not legally required to be under IAEA safeguards, as well as representatives from other key states. The initial focus should be to increase transparency and confidence regarding fissile production and fissile stocks and begin technical work on a targeted system for verifying a production halt.

Even if talks on a verifiable, global FMCT begin in Geneva, they may last many years. To hasten progress, the five original nuclear-weapon states should seek an agreement by all states with facilities not subject to safeguards to voluntarily suspend fissile production and place stocks in excess of military requirements under IAEA inspection.

Such a step would maintain pressure on Pakistan and is consistent with UN Security Council Resolution 1172, which calls upon India and Pakistan to “stop their nuclear weapons development programmes [and] cease any further production of fissile material for nuclear weapons.” For Israel, which does not need more fissile material and has an aging reactor at Dimona, the moratorium would make a virtue out of necessity.

None of these options is easy or simple, but too much time has already been wasted at the CD. States that are truly serious about reducing the nuclear threat now must provide the leadership needed to build an effective fissile material control regime.