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Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) at a Glance
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Contact: Daryl Kimball, Executive Director, (202) 463-8270 x107; Kingston Reif, Director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy, (202) 463-8270 x104

August 2013

A fissile material cut-off treaty (FMCT) is a proposed international agreement that would prohibit the production of the two main components of nuclear weapons: highly-enriched uranium (HEU), and plutonium. Discussions on this subject are being held within the UN Conference on Disarmament (CD), a body of 65 member nations established as the sole multilateral negotiating forum on disarmament. The CD requires consensus for action to take place. Consequently, negotiations for an FMCT have not taken place, though preliminary discussions are ongoing.

Those nations that joined the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as non-weapon states are already prohibited from producing or acquiring fissile material for weapons. An FMCT would provide new restrictions for the five recognized nuclear weapon states (NWS—United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France, and China), and for the four nations that are not NPT members (Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea).

Background

Efforts to curb the spread of nuclear material and technology began only a short time after the world was introduced to the destructive potential of atomic weaponry. In 1946 the Acheson-Lilienthal Report, authored in part by Manhattan Project physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, advocated for an Atomic Development Agency to regulate fissile material and ensure that state rivalries over the technology did not occur. Ultimately, neither Dean Acheson or David Lilienthal presented the U.S. plan to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission (UNAEC). Instead, Bernard Baruch presented the Baruch Plan, which also would have established an Atomic Development Authority that answered to the UN Security-Council. The plan called for the United States to disassemble its nuclear arsenal, but only after an agreement had been reached assuring the United States that the Soviets would not be able to acquire a bomb. The plan failed to achieve consensus within the UNAEC.

Much later, UN resolution 78/57 L, which passed unanimously in 1993, called for a “non-discriminatory, multi-lateral and internationally and effectively verifiable treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.”

In March 1995, the CD took up a mandate presented by Canadian Ambassador Gerald Shannon. The Shannon Mandate established an ad hoc committee that was directed to negotiate an FMCT by the end of the 1995 session. A lack of consensus over verification provisions, as well as desires to hold parallel negotiations on outer space arms control issues, prevented negotiations from getting underway. China and Russia continue to articulate a desire to hold parallel negotiations on Preventing an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS), a point which has further stalled efforts to begin FMCT negotiations.

The George W. Bush administration submitted an FMCT proposal at the CD 2006 which proposed a fifteen year ban on the production of HEU and plutonium, two key components of nuclear weapons. The proposal did not include any verification measures, and would have applied to only the five recognized NWS.

The Obama administration’s support of an FMCT was displayed prominently in a speech President Obama delivered in Prague in 2009, including dropping the previous administration’s opposition to FMCT verification. Obama stated that, “the United States will seek a new treaty that verifiably ends the production of fissile materials intended for use in state nuclear weapons.”

Global Fissile Stockpile Estimates

The United States, United Kingdom, France, and Russia have all declared that they have stopped producing fissile material for nuclear weapons. It is widely believed that China has also stopped producing fissile material for nuclear weapons, ceasing production of highly enriched uranium (HEU) in 1987, and plutonium in 1991.

According to the International Panel on Fissile Material’s (IPFM) 2011 Global Fissile Material Report, the global stockpile of HEU in 2011 consisted of roughly 1,440 ± 125 tons, which would be enough material to create 60,000 first simple, first generation nuclear weapons. Roughly 98% of the HEU stock is owned by nuclear weapon states, and Russia and the United States have the largest stocks. India and Pakistan are believed to have ongoing production operations for HEU, although the total global stock continues to decrease, largely because of the efforts of the United States and Russia to down-blend HEU considered to be in excess of military needs.

IPFM estimates the global stockpile of separated plutonium at 485 ± 10 tons, of which, roughly half was produced for use in weapons. The other half was produced for civilian uses. About 98% of plutonium is held by states with nuclear weapons, and the remaining 2% is mostly held by Japan, which has over 10 tons of plutonium. Though the five NWS no longer produce weapons-grade plutonium, production continues in India and Pakistan. Israel still operates its plutonium-producing Dimona reactor, but it is believed to be aimed at producing tritium, rather than plutonium. (Note: all measurements are in metric tons)

 

Fissile Material Production End Dates

 

Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU)

Weapon Grade Plutonium

United States

1992

1987

Russia

1987-88

1994

United Kingdom

1963

1989

France

1996

1992

China

1987-89*

1990*

India

Ongoing

Ongoing

Israel

Status Unknown

Status Unknown

Pakistan

Ongoing

Ongoing

North Korea**

Status Unknown

Shut Down

 

*While information on China’s fissile material stocks have remained a secret, China is widely believed to have stopped production of fissile material.

**After agreeing to halt plutonium production in 2007 North Korea restarted the program in 2009 to recycle one final batch of spent fuel. It has not since restarted its 5 megawatt reactor to produce additional plutonium. North Korea unveiled a uranium enrichment plant in 2010 and likely has other uranium enrichment facilities of unknown size and purpose.

Points of Contention

In order for negotiations to begin on an FMCT, Pakistan will have to remove its opposition vote, and a consensus to move forward with negotiations must be reached. Pakistan has been primarily concerned that an FMCT would lock them into a disadvantageous position relative to India’s superior nuclear stockpile. Consequently, Islamabad would like an FMCT to include current fissile material stockpiles, instead of just capping future production, a position shared by several other countries.

 


Posted: August 26, 2013