Updated: April 2018
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 have taken place at the UN Conference on Disarmament (CD), a body of 65 member nations established as the sole multilateral negotiating forum on disarmament. The CD operates by consensus and is often stagnant, impeding progress on an FMCT.
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).
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 articulated 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 U.S. and an FMCT
The George W. Bush administration submitted an FMCT proposal at the CD in 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.” A group of governmental experts issued a report in 2015 making recommendations on taking forward an FMCT. In March 2016, the United States formulated a proposal at the Conference on Disarmament to establish a working group to negotiate an FMCT.
The Trump administration hasn’t yet publically supported the negotiation of an FMCT.
Global Fissile Stockpile Estimates
The United States, the 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) 2015 Global Fissile Material Report, the global stockpile of HEU in 2015 consisted of roughly 1,340 ± 125 tons, which would be enough material to create 76,000 first simple, first generation nuclear weapons. Roughly 99% of the HEU stock is owned by nuclear weapon states, and Russia and the United States have the largest stocks. India, Pakistan, and North Korea are believed to have ongoing production operations for HEU.
IPFM estimates the global stockpile of separated plutonium at 520 ± 10 tons, of which, less than half was produced for use in weapons. About 88% of plutonium is held by states with nuclear weapons that are NPT signatories, and most of the remaining 12% is held by Japan, which has over 47 tons of plutonium. Though the five NWS no longer produce weapons-grade plutonium, production continues in India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan.
Fissile Material Production End Dates
Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU)
Weapon Grade Plutonium
*While information on China’s fissile material stocks have remained a secret, China is widely believed to have stopped production of fissile material.
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.