The Fissile Material Cut-off Debate

Manpreet Sethi,Research Officer,IDSA


International attention is once again beginning to zero in on the issue of fissile material production cut-off. The impasse in the Conference on Disarmament (CD) with respect to negotiations on the issue which had developed in 1995, has finally been, momentarily at least, somewhat resolved with India, Pakistan and Israel agreeing to participate in the negotiations. It is, therefore, pertinent at the present juncture to examine the debate on the issue of fissile material cut-off, scrutinise the proposal under study for the conclusion of a treaty and understand the compulsions of various countries or groups of countries that are involved in the ongoing process.

The term fissile material includes those materials that are fissionable when irradiated by both slow or thermal neutrons.1 The International Atomic Energy Agency(IAEA) Statute defines "special fissionable materials" as plutonium-239; U(uranium)-233; uranium enriched in the isotopes 235 or 233 which means uranium containing the isotopes 235 or 233 or both in an amount such that the abundance ratio of the sum of these isotopes to the isotope 238 is greater than the ratio of the isotope 235 to the isotope 238 occurring in nature.2

Natural uranium contains 0.71 per cent of the fissile isotope uranium U-235. The remainder is the fertile (convertible into plutonium) isotope U-238. By various means, the proportion of U-235 to U-238 is increased. This proportion is raised to between two to four per cent to produce fuel used in light water reactors. When the proportion is raised to 20 per cent or more, the material is classified by the IAEA as highly enriched uranium (HEU). In practice, however, the proportion of U-235 in a nuclear explosive device must be of the order of 90 per cent or more. Plutonium of any isotopic composition is weapon-usable. Therefore,these two fundamental ingredients of all nuclear weapons are the targets of the proposed Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT).

The international community, for a long time now has been contemplating putting an end to the production of fissile material as one way of tackling nuclear proliferation—both horizontal as well as vertical. The logic is that if no fissile material is available to countries that are already non-nuclear, they would not be able to produce bombs at any time in the future either. At the same time, since the fissile material available with the nuclear weapon states (NWS) would also be limited with no scope for any further production, the number of weapons that they could build would also be limited. Therefore, if the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) halted the qualitative improvement in nuclear weapons, an FMCT would stop their quantitative increase. Or, would it? This paper seeks to examine what the proposed FMCT would actually be able to do. It also identifies the related issues that should be of concern to India and urges their careful scrutiny so that a coherent stance can be formulated that does not compromise national security in any way.

The Evolution of the Concept

The concept of fissile material cut-off had first been proposed as a measure aiming at controlling American and Soviet nuclear arsenals by President Eisenhower in 1956. However, perceiving it as an American tactic to freeze the USSR into a quantitatively inferior status, Moscow had rejected the proposal. Notwithstanding the rebuttal, from 1956 upto the end of the 1960s, the cut-off remained the "centrepiece of arms control proposals of the USA". Throughout this period, the Soviet inventory of fissile materials remained less than that of the US. Hence, the American push for a fissile material production cut-off and the Soviet resistance are understandable.

Of course, a token gesture was made in April 1964 when the two superpowers did announce cuts in fissile material production. The US decided to cut its production of HEU while the USSR offered to stop construction of two new large atomic reactors for producing plutonium and stopping production of U-235.2

Besides their own attempts, over the years, several non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) continued to make suggestions in the UN General Assembly and otherwise to formalise a ban on fissile material production. For instance, at the First Special Session on Disarmament in 1978 the Canadian Prime Minister tabled a proposal aimed at a prohibition of all production of all fissionable material for weapons purposes as part of a "strategy of suffocation."3

Unfortunately, nothing came of it or other similar measures. Viewed from hindsight, it is now clear that these attempts were being made at a time when the world was in the midst of the Cold War and neither side was in a mood to place any limits on its nuclear arsenal. In fact, by the 1980s, when the Soviets had not only caught up with the Americans but overtaken them in terms of their strategic nuclear forces, Moscow reversed its earlier refusal to consider the fissile material cut-off and rather began to appeal for it even as the US began to oppose the freeze. Consequently, President Bush failed to endorse the repeated calls of President Gorbachev for a ban on production of fissile material in 1989, 1990 or October 1991. Even until December 1992 when the UN General Assembly had overwhelmingly requested the CD to pursue "its consideration of the question of the cessation and prohibition of such production", it had not met with a favourable US response.

The turnaround in the American position came about only a few years after the end of the Cold War and especially after the realisation had sunk into the American and Soviet psyche that a nuclear war was unwinnable and, therefore, must never be fought. Thereafter, the military credence attached to nuclear weapons was reduced somewhat and once again, talk of a fissile material ban started.

In September 1993, with Clinton's review of the US non-proliferation policy, his Administration once again came out in favour of the fissile material production cut-off. President Clinton then announced that the US "will undertake a comprehensive approach to the growing accumulation of fissile material."4 This was identified as one step in the larger framework for US efforts to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. It, therefore, announced its intention to "propose a multilateral convention prohibiting the production of HEU or plutonium for nuclear explosives purposes or outside of international safeguards."5

With this reversal in policy, Moscow and Washington came to be on the same side of the fence on the issue of banning fissile material production. On January 18, 1994, the Presidents of the two countries reiterated their support for a cut off in their Moscow Declaration. Within a week of this, the CD included the ban on its agenda and appointed a Special Coordinator in Ambassador Shannon of Canada to seek the views of the Conference members on the most appropriate arrangement to negotiate a non-discriminatory, multilateral and internationally verifiable treaty banning the production of fissile material of nuclear weapons or other nuclear devices.6

The Timing of the Resurgence of Interest

However, before tracing the progress of the negotiations over the last four years, it is important to highlight the significance of the timing of the start of the negotiations on the issue. By the time the US and the USSR came around to getting serious on the ban, not only both of them, but the other three NWS also had amassed enough stocks of fissile material to feel no need for further production.

In fact, the USA had stopped producing HEU for weapons in 1964, though plutonium production was not stopped until 1988. The USSR announced in 1989 that it had stopped producing HEU, a pledge that was reiterated by Russia after the break-up of the Soviet Union. However, its plutonium production was halted only on October 1, 1994. Britain too has not produced HEU for many years, having shut down its military enrichment facilities. More recently it has also announced the cessation of production of plutonium for weapons.

France and China, however, present a different case. Although France does not produce plutonium for weapons any longer, it does continue with its HEU production and has refused to agree to a moratorium. While it may be conceded that France could be needing the HEU for naval or tritium-production reactors, yet their use in weapons cannot be discounted. As far as China is concerned, the situation is even more ambiguous. According to the head of the China Nuclear Energy Industry Corporation, China had stopped producing HEU for weapons in 1987. In fact, Beijing is even believed to have privately informed Washington that it is no longer producing fissile material for weapons, but has made no formal public announcement to this effect. With little information being available on the status of its reprocessing and enrichment plants, it cannot be ascertained whether fissile material is still being produced in China or not.

However, irrespective of the availability or non-availability of this information, the point that needs to be highlighted is that the NWS have accumulated sufficient stocks and no longer feel threatened by a ban freezing the stockpiles at present levels. Consequently, before the crucial NPT Extension Conference in May 1995, Washington had tried to orchestrate a joint announcement by the five NWS that they were halting the production of fissile material for weapons. But China and France declined to join in even though China had informed the US privately that it had stopped production and France had announced in May 1993 that it had halted the production of plutonium for weapons.

Considering that the NWS that possess facilities for production of fissile material and a need for them for their arsenals have already declared their closure in their own way though not through a joint announcement, and that the NNWS that are already members of the NPT have their nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards, one may well question the need for such a treaty. What more can the FMCT achieve besides formalising the NWS commitment? But, on scraping the surface, one can discover that for the NWS, the conclusion of the treaty attains two objectives : firstly, it provides them with an opportunity to showcase their good intentions to move towards a less dangerous world, albeit one in which nuclear weapons do continue to exist with some limited number of nations; and secondly, it provides them with yet another means to rope in some of the other nuclear weapon capable nations that have consistently refused to join the NPT and thereby challenge their nuclear monopoly.

Implications of a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty

A treaty on fissile material cut-off encapsulates a proposal for the prohibition of the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. An FMCT would, hence, imply a set of three commitments on the part of its member states : to desist from manufacturing HEU or separating plutonium for either the construction of nuclear weapons or research and development in that field; to refrain from assisting other states in this regard; and, to accept IAEA safeguards for verification of the implementation of these commitments.

Thereby, the FMCT endeavours to achieve multiple objectives that may be seen differently from different perspectives. Firstly, it would limit the size of potential nuclear arsenals except where surplus stocks of such material already exist (as in the case of the USA and Russia). Secondly, it would make reductions irreversible if the fissile material is transferred from dismantled weapons and other unsafeguarded stocks to non-weapons use or disposal under international safeguards. Thirdly, it would strengthen the non-proliferation regime by opening nuclear facilities in all states to international inspections. Therefore, it would reduce the discriminatory nature of the non-proliferation regime. Also, it would increase the moral, legal and practical constraints on production of nuclear weapons by non-NPT states.

However, there are some issues that have surfaced during the several rounds of discussions as being contentious enough to divide the international community on the scope and terms of the treaty. For instance, the countries that have weapons capabilities but are outside the purview of the NPT have perceived the FMCT as an attempt at trying to rope them in to accepting full-scope international safeguards. India, Israel and Pakistan have, therefore, been wary of any such treaty for the simple reason that it would mean opening their nuclear facilities to international monitoring mechanisms, a move that they have fervently resisted over the years.

The fact that this has been one of the primary motives behind the American push for an FMCT cannot be denied. The US is well aware of the bomb making potential of not only India, Pakistan and Israel but also of other NNWS who had once evinced interest in nuclear weapons (Argentina, Brazil, and South Africa). According to estimates published in the Rand report, these seven countries combined were believed to have enough sensitive nuclear material to manufacture 230 bombs per year.7 The report further states that the treaty "is aimed particularly at India, Pakistan and Israel, which are undeclared nuclear weapon states and are unlikely to join the NPT."9

The second major flashpoint on the issue has arisen on the scope of the treaty—whether it should be confined only to future production or include existing stockpiles of fissile material also within the FMCT purview. The conclusion of a mandate for negotiations on the FMCT was delayed for more than a year on this subject because of an attempt by some countries (Egypt, Pakistan, Iran and Algeria) to broaden the CD's mandate to include negotiations of reductions of the existing stockpiles. In fact, this thought was first crystallised in the Non-Aligned Movement's (NAM's) Cairo Declaration in 1994. On June 9, 1994, the Pakistani representative at the CD sought a schedule for the progressive transfer of those stocks to safeguards, so that unsafeguarded stocks are "equalised" at the lowest possible level.10

In view of this demand, Ambassador Shannon in his report of March 24, 1995, conceded that the "mandate for the establishment of the ad hoc committee does not preclude any delegation from raising for consideration in the ad hoc committee any of the above mentioned issues."11 This was interpreted as keeping the focus on production cut-off while allowing for discussion on the management of existing stocks as well. In the last couple of years, some Western countries too have come to support the inclusion of stockpiles because of the concern about nuclear smuggling.12 Even the Rand report cautions that parties to the FMCT could still clandestinely build facilities to convert stored plutonium into a form usable for bombs.

The third issue over which problems have cropped up involves the position of the FMCT in the larger nuclear disarmament objective. The standoff had originally developed over the issue of the extent of relationship between the FMCT and nuclear disarmament. Most non-aligned states have perceived the FMCT as an element of a larger programme of action for the elimination of nuclear weapons and have sought to ensure that the CD deals with the issue in that context before agreeing to begin negotiations on a cut-off.

Although the CD had agreed in 1995 to establish an ad hoc committee with a mandate to negotiate a treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons and that the mandate would not preclude any delegation from raising issues relating to scope, negotiations were not begun because the establishment of that committee became linked with the establishment of a committee on nuclear disarmament. India and Pakistan argued that the "fissban" committee should be linked to a committee to negotiate nuclear disarmament. Egypt too called for an ad hoc committee on nuclear disarmament that would begin negotiations on a cut-off and, in parallel, undertake consultations on a mandate that would outline a time-bound framework for the committee's future work on nuclear disarmament. Others, however, including France and the UK, demanded the establishment of a nuclear disarmament committee with the establishment of a conventional disarmament committee. This wrangle prevented the very establishment of a fissban committee and talks remained deadlocked.

Having identified the issues on which reservations have arisen from different quarters, it would be logical to examine the positions of different countries on the scope of the treaty. Expectedly, a very complex scenario emerges. The US, Canada, UK and France view the mandate as being confined only to future production of fissile material for weapons besides insisting on a delinking of the issue with that of disarmament. The UK and France also insist that the treaty must not limit their production of plutonium and HEU being put to civilian use. While India supports this position, it differs on the linkage of the FMCT with nuclear disarmament.

Meanwhile, the ranks of the NNWS are not united on the linkage either. Some seek not only the linkage as an essential condition but also want to target the issue of existing stockpiles. Brazil, for instance, has insisted upon the second condition as being essential for the success of the treaty. Its representative has questioned, "How can a ban on fissile material be effective without adequate knowledge and accountability of the amount of material already in existence?"13 Sri Lanka, Egypt, Pakistan, Mexico, etc. too have called for the treaty to deal with the existing stockpiles. Amongst the proponents of broadening the scope of the FMCT to include past stocks, it is easy to discern certain vested interests. For instance, Iran, Egypt and Algeria have found in this an opportunity to denuclearise Israel. Meanwhile, Pakistan hopes for a bare-all revelation of Indian fissile material stockpiles and a cap on their future production. It is amply evident that the stance of every country shields its own political compulsions and India will have to tread its path cautiously and intelligently on the matter.

India and the Proposed FMCT

Given the complicated matrix of positions of countries on the FMCT, it is uncertain as to when, and if at all, the FMCT would emerge. However, the Indian position on the subject must be based on the consideration of a few facts that are outlined in the following paragraphs.

At the outset, it needs to be highlighted that what India is seeking is a non-discriminatory treaty that proposes to tackle the issue of fissile material in its totality. Secondly, the Indian position is very clear that the FMCT is not an end by itself but one step on the road leading to the eventual realisation of a nuclear weapon-free world. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in his address to the UN General Assembly in September 1998 stated that the FMCT was "a partial step." But he predicated India's participation in its negotiation "in good faith in order to ensure a treaty that is non-discriminatory and meets India's security imperatives."14

Having outlined the basis of the treaty, India needs to clearly understand both the implications of the FMCT for the country's security and nuclear energy requirements, as well as the limitations of the proposed FMCT in order to explore possibilities of mitigating them to the extent possible. India needs to read the text concerning plutonium production even more carefully than of HEU since it shall be the endeavour of the FMCT to check the production of this nuclear material. Therefore, New Delhi must be cautious in the commitments it undertakes on this, particularly because the Indian nuclear power programme as envisioned by Bhabha details a role for plutonium in the long-term adoption of the thorium cycle. Consequently, India has sided with the UK and France to let the FMCT allow plutonium production for civilian use. But then, if this is accepted, it will be a provision applicable to other countries as well and the dangers of plutonium being available to several states need to be understood given the mercurial nature of this fissile material.

It has been established that once plutonium has been separated from highly radioactive spent fuel, it is not difficult or time consuming to convert it into metal, the chemical form that is most appropriate for weapon use. Construction of facilities for carrying out this conversion can be done either in the garb of conducting research or even clandestinely without their detection since they would essentially be simple and small. Yet another related issue that can have a direct bearing on India's security concerns emanates from Pakistan's demand that the cut-off should be accompanied by declarations of fissile material stockpiles by all states and a schedule for their transfer to safeguards. The purpose of this would be, according to Pakistan, to have a "binding programme for the elimination of asymmetry in the possession of fissile material stockpiles by various states." However, the fact that the actual purpose of this demand is to delay the conclusion of an FMCT that locks Pakistan into a purely HEU based weapon programme and freezes it in relation to India is abundantly clear.

A third consideration that India must carefully study is the fact that the proposed FMCT is not going to prohibit further production and stockpiling of fissile material for some military uses not related to nuclear weapons, e.g. in naval nuclear-powered submarines. Also, the treaty does not intend to reduce existing inventories or even necessarily to eliminate production capabilities. It only suggests a first step towards preventing future fissile production that is unsafeguarded and acknowledged to be for the purpose of making nuclear explosives. To that extent, the FMCT specifically targets India and Pakistan (assuming Israel achieved its maximum needs some time ago. But nuclear disarmament is necessary as a simultaneous measure for the actual success of the FMCT. Common sense too dictates this since such a restraint as the FMCT proposes will be acceptable to states with smaller arsenals only when there is a concrete even if long-term likelihood of all states being free of their nuclear arsenals at some point of time.

Yet another related issue that needs to be attended to is that of the physical protection of the safeguarded stockpiles. This should essentially be a national matter since international safeguards standards emphasise physical security, material control and accounting (MPC&A) and seek national legislations to detect, deter, prevent or respond to the unauthorised possession or use of significant quantities of nuclear materials through theft or diversion and sabotage of nuclear facilities. Yet the role of an international safeguards monitoring and verification agency cannot be discounted. It will also have to be debated whether international storage sites will be required to keep the fissile material. This becomes important given that no monitoring agency would be able to prevent the host country from siezing the fissile material within its own boundaries or using the existing facilities to produce material for nuclear weapons in the event of a crisis. At the same time, it is necessary to factor in the costs of monitoring and verification, besides that of building and maintaining international storage sites, if it is so decided. Preliminary cost estimates of verifying a fissile cut-off calculate a doubling or tripling of the IAEA's annual safeguards budget, placed now at $70 million. Besides, it would also require a 7 to 11 per cent annual growth over 10 years in trained inspectors and person-days of inspection effort.15 The international community would need to muster up not only the requisite will but also the massive resources to facilitiate such a project.

The questions confronting the FMCT negotiators are many and complex. That the debates will be lengthy and the actual finalisation of the treaty a slow and tortuous process is a foregone conclusion. However, it would be worthwhile for India to proactively participate in the negotiations in order to project its position and press for its inclusion in the final FMCT. In case a clear linkage can be established with nuclear disarmament and India's security and energy concerns catered for, it should have no compunctions about joining the treaty.

However, if the negotiations are hijacked by the five original NWS to conclude a treaty whose primary purpose is none other than to bring sensitive facilities and the material produced from them in India under international safeguards, then, of course, India needs to retain the option of stepping out of the negotiations. Particularly because of the two other hold-outs of the NPT, Pakistan (the other being Israel) has no significant nuclear power programmes, but it is also secure in the knowledge that, given its close cooperation with China, it can depend on other NWS for nuclear materials and the design or even the device in times of crisis. India, on the other hand, has an eleborate and painstakingly built indigenous civilian nuclear infrastructure and legitimate security concerns that cannot be compromised for anything less than a universal and firm commitment to nuclear disarmament.

A credible nuclear deterrent is now within India's control. Once it has built a bare minimum of nuclear weapons, it need not bother about accumulation of additional fissile material stockpiles. It needs to be remembered that more nuclear weapons do not necessarily mean more security. Neither does India have any plans to engage in a nuclear arms race with either of its neighbours. Consequently, if our immediate security requirements are adequately met and long-term security guaranteed through a universal nuclear disarmament convention, then the Indian decision to participate in the FMCT negotiations is well taken. The treaty would obviously "cap" India's nuclear weapon capabilities through international treaty obligations. We should accept this only if there is marked movement toward nuclear disarmament and with a clear understanding that in the interim, India would receive full access to dual use (especially nuclear power related) trade and technology.


1. Brian G. Chow, Kenneth A. Solomon, " Limiting the Spread of Weapon-Usable Fissile Materials," Rand Report, 1993, p. 1.

2. IAEA Statute as reproduced in David Fischer.

3. SIPRI Yearbook : World Armaments and Disarmament (Taylor and Francis, 1981), p. 470.

4. As quoted in Hayat Khan, "The Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty," Disarmament, vol. XX, no. 1, 1997.

5. Brian G. Chow, Richard H. Speier, Gregory S. Jones, "The Proposed Fissile-Material Production Cutoff : Next Steps," Rand Report, (Santa Monica : RAND, 1995), p. iii.

6. Ibid., p. 3.

7. CD/PV.692

8. Rand Report, n. 5, p .x.

9. Ibid., p.6.

10. CD/PV 681, June 9, 1994.

11. Report of Ambassador Gerald E. Shannon to the CD, March 23, 1995.

12. Nuclear Proliferation News, March 7, 1997.

13. CD/PV/755, February 13, 1997, pp.3-5.

14. Prime Minister's Speech at the UN General Assembly, reprinted in Strategic Digest, November 1998.

15. Steve Fetter, Frank von Hippel, "A Step-by Step Approach to a Global Fissile Materials Cutoff," Arms Control Today, vol. 25, no. 8, October 1995, p. 5.