Fissile Material Containment Efforts: An Overview

-Kalpana Chittaranjan, Researcher, IDSA


By September 10, 1996, when the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) reconvened and voted to adopt the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and open it for signature at the earliest possible date, the acronymn by which it is better known had become familiar in the lexicon of many Indians. In the next few years, another acronymn, the FMCT or its expanded form, Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, could become just as familiar. Before one looks at what the FMCT aims at, it is essential to have a clear understanding of what fissile material is. Fissile material is composed of atoms which fission when irradiated by either fast or slow (thermal) neutrons. Uranium-235 (U-235) and plutonium-239 (Pu-239) are the most common fissile materials.1 In an expanded definition, "fissile" (also called "fissionable") nuclei may be split by neutrons of low energy (not accelerated to high speeds). Though most natural substances consist of stable atoms with nuclei which are difficult to split, several of the very heavy elements of many protons and neutrons can be readily split when hit by a neutron. While nature has provided only one fissile material, U-235, humans have created another, Pu-239, as a byproduct of uranium-fuelled reactors. A neutron hitting U-238 is absorbed by the nucleus, becoming Pu-239, a fissile material. Uranium burnup also produces the less fissile Pu-240, Pu-241 and Pu-242. Weapon-grade plutonium has less than 7 per cent Pu-240 (mostly 239). Fuel-grade has 7-18 per cent Pu-240, and reactor-grade has over 18 per cent Pu-240. Plutonium of almost any grade may be used for a nuclear weapon while weapon-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU) has 90 per cent U-235 with the remainder as U-238.2

Fissile materials (plutonium and HEU) are the fundamental ingredients of all nuclear weapons and they also happen to be the most difficult and expensive part of a nuclear warhead to produce. For a comprehensive nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime to be established, it becomes essential that there is a global, verified ban on the production of fissile materials for nuclear explosives. What are the benefits of a cutoff on fissile material? It would limit the size of potential nuclear arsenals. It would make reductions irreversible if fissile material were transferred from dismantled weapons and other unsafeguarded stocks to non-weapons use or disposal under international standards. It would strengthen the non-proliferation regime by opening nuclear facilities in all states to international inspection.3


Though the disposition of the production of weapon-grade fissionable material has become the major point of concern in this transitional era of nuclear disarmament and dismantlement only in the last few years, i.e., since the early 1990s, when it entered the international agenda as an item for forthcoming negotiations, the issue of managing nuclear warhead material and banning the production of fissile material for military purposes has been approached time and again over the last 50 years. The first attempt at banning atomic fissile materials production was made in the aftermath of the dropping of atom bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, which ended World War II. It began with the Acheson-Lilenthal Report of 1946 (named after the US Secretary of State and the future first Chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission). In this report, US President Harry S. Truman introduced the concept of controlling nuclear energy and fissionable material for either peaceful or military purposes. Though the report did not provide for measures to be taken against violators, the goal of the envisaged organisation was only to sound a warning signal in the event of danger.

At the inaugural meeting of the Atomic Energy Commission, set up by the UNGA to work out specific proposals for eliminating atomic weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction, the US delegate, Bernard Baruch, put forward a proposal known as the Baruch Plan. This plan envisaged the setting up of an authority to be called the International Atomic Energy Control Agency which would be entrusted with managerial control of all atomic energy activities potentially dangerous to world activities. Its duty was also to foster the beneficial uses of atomic energy. The Agency, in particular, was to conduct continuous surveys of supplies of uranium and thorium and bring these materials under its control. It was also to possess the exclusive right to both conduct research in the field of atomic explosives and to produce and own fissionable material. All countries were to be granted the freedom of inspection deemed necessary by the Agency. The Baruch Plan, which was based on the Acheson-Lilenthal Report, differed from the latter in that it stressed the importance of immediate punishment for infringement of the rights of the Agency and maintained that there must be no veto to protect those who violated the agreement not to develop or use atomic energy for destructive purposes. It was later explained by the USA that what it had in mind was the ownership and exclusive operation by the international authority of all facilities for the production of uranium 235 and plutonium. Once a system of control and sanctions was operating effectively, production of atomic weapons would cease, existing stocks would be destroyed, all technological information would be communicated to the authority, which in effect would mean that control would have to come first, followed by atomic disarmament.4

The Soviet Union rejected the Baruch Plan on the grounds that it would interfere with the national sovereignty and internal affairs of states and that the provision denying a permanent member of the Security Council the right of veto was contrary to the UN Charter. In turn, the Soviet Union submitted a draft convention, called the Gromyko Plan (after the Soviet delegate who later became Foreign Minister), which reversed the priorities put forward by the USA. The basic differences between the two positions concerned, first, the stage at which atomic weapons were to be prohibited, i.e., whether a convention outlawing these weapons and providing for their destruction should precede or follow the establishment of a control system; and second, the role of the UN Security Council in dealing with possible violations, i.e., whether the rule of veto would be applicable.5

As a consequence of the Baruch Plan, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower made his famous "Atoms for Peace" speech in 1953, at the UNGA. His plan was to promote disarmament by an indirect approach--that of building up the peaceful uses of atomic energy. The atomic powers were to contribute fissionable material for such uses to an agency which would be set up under the aegis of the United Nations and which would help countries to obtain the benefits of atomic energy. In his speech, the proposal for the creation of an atomic energy agency envisioned that "fissionable material would be allocated to serve the peaceful pursuits of mankind...mobilised to apply atomic energy to the needs of agriculture, medicine...and provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world."6

The "Atoms for Peace" proposal led to the establishment, in 1956, of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which went into formal operation in 1957 with the main functions of: assisting research, development and practical application of atomic energy for peaceful purposes; to make provision for relevant materials, services, equipment and facilities, with the consideration for the underdeveloped areas of the world; to foster the exchange of scientific and technical information and to encourage the exchange and training of experts in the field of peaceful uses of atomic energy; to administer safeguards designed to ensure that relevant materials, equipment and information were not used in such a way as to further any military purposes; and to establish standards of safety for the protection of health and the minimisation of danger to life and property.7

In 1956, President Eisenhower first proposed a production cutoff as a US-Soviet arms control measure, but this was rejected by Moscow which saw it as a tactic to freeze the Soviet Union into a quantitatively inferior status. The Cold War of the 1950s and 1960s saw different proposals discussed for progressive nuclear disarmament and cutoff of the production of fissile material. Due to the confrontation between the United States and Soviet Union, nuclear tests and fissile material production went ahead between the then-superpowers, i.e., they played out their bipolar nuclear competition. While Moscow rejected cutoff proposals by the USA during the late 1950s, the late 1980s saw the reverse, with opposition by the Bush Administration in spite of the optimism of President Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union. While welcoming the significant progress induced by substansive bilateral agreements between the USA and the Russian Federation, in the context of the disposition of fissile materials for weapons purposes, US President Clinton proposed a mandate at the UNGA in September 1993, where he called for " international agreement that would ban production of these materials forever."8 With the support of many countries, including Canada (which was a major proponent of the idea), the UNGA endorsed a resolution (48/75L).9 Annex A expresses the conviction that a "nondiscriminatory, multilateral and internationally and effectively verifiable treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices would be a significant contribution to nuclear non-proliferation in all its aspects."10 The resolution called for the negotiation of such a treaty in the most appropriate international forum and requested the IAEA to provide assistance in the examination of verification arrangements. In this case, the Conference on Disarmament (CD), which reports to the UNGA, is the most appropriate. The CD is a multilateral arms control negotiation body, based at Geneva, and is composed of countries representing all the regions of the world, which includes the permanent members of the UN Security Council. There was a delay at the CD at the beginning of these negotiations, because of an effort, which was principally led by Algeria, Egypt, Iran and Pakistan, to broaden the CD's mandate to include negotiations of reductions so that "unsafeguarded stocks are equalised at the lowest possible level."11 For implementation of the resolution, the Special CD Coordinator, Ambassador G. Shannon of Canada, sought the views of, and held numerous consultations with, CD members and national experts in preparation of an agreement on the most appropriate arrangement to negotiate the treaty. He proposed, at the beginning of the 1994 CD session, that an ad hoc committee should generally be established. However, the CD failed to establish an agreement for a mandate regarding the scope of a future convention. The term "production" of future and existing stocks brought about the most acute differences over its interpretation. On March 23, 1995, the CD agreed by consensus to establish an ad hoc committee and called for an appropriate negotiation of a mandate to "...ban the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices..." and concluded with a call for the negotiation of a final treaty.12 The new committee would fall under CD agenda item 2, i.e., "cessation of the arms race and nuclear disarmament."

At the May 1995 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review and Extension Conference, there was agreement on an action plan on the "Principles and Objectives for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament" which included the immediate commencement and early conclusion of cutoff negotiations in accordance with the 1985 CD mandate. The five Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) commited themselves to the "early conclusion" of negotiations on a cutoff. Negotiations were delayed by a group led by Pakistan (with Indian support), which insisted that cutoff negotiations be linked to parallel talks on nuclear disarmament.13 At this conference, there was broad agreement on the role of the IAEA in implementing safeguards agreements and its continuing efforts to improve safeguards effectiveness and efficiency. However, there were some differences among the countries concerning its "93+2 programme" which reflected the existing differences in the Board of Governors of the Agency itself. Nevertheless, the countries were ready to endorse the general direction of the programme for a strengthened and cost-effective safeguards system. Earlier, in March 1995, the IAEA Board of Governors reviewed the progress made by the Secretariat in the "Programme 93+2," which was a plan to design, develop and test a set of comprehensive measures to improve the Agency's safeguard regime and also to endorse its general direction. The programme had begun in December 1993 with the aim of presenting the Board of Governors with the technical, legal and financial implications of a fully integrated set of stronger, more efficient safeguard measures, prior to the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference.14 US President Bill Clinton reiterated the importance of negotiating a treaty to freeze the production of fissile materials for use in nuclear weapons as he addressed the 51st UNGA on September 24, 1996.15

Inventories of Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium

According to SIPRI 1995, the central estimates of the world inventories at the end of 1993, rounded to two significant figures, were: for plutonium, 1,100 tonnes; and for HEU, 1,700 tonnes.16

All the NWS are believed to have halted plutonium production for weapons, although by the end of 1993, only the UK, the USA and Russia had officially announced such a halt.17 While the USA had ended reprocessing of plutonium for nuclear weapons in March 1992 (production of HEU for weapons had ended in 1964), France announced that it no longer produced fissile material for use in nuclear weapons in February 1996.18

Positions of the Governments of the NWS and Threshold States

Britain: HEU production for weapons ended in 1963, in part because it obtained the material from the USA. On April 18, 1995, Britain announced an end to fissile material production. Though it gives support to the cutoff, it does so hesitatingly, because it has problems with intrusiveness.

China: HEU production for weapons reportedly ended in 1987. It objected to a cutoff in April 1994 but has agreed to work with the USA (October 1994).

France: Plutonium production ended for military purposes in 1992 while its military enrichment facilities were scheduled for closure in 1995. France is hesitant about the cutoff because of fear of intrusion.

India: HEU and plutonium production may continue at unsafeguarded facilities and experts credit it with employing the material in nuclear weapons. Though it rejected a regional cutoff (20-21.4.1994), it supported a global cutoff, without the inclusion of civilian stockpiles or production (7.7.1995). Since India's production flows from its civilian programme, it could be impossible to differentiate it from military production.

Israel: Plutonium production continues at Dimona and experts credit the country with employing the material in nuclear weapons. It does not want a fissile cutoff at this time.

Pakistan: HEU production halted in 1991 at Kahuta but experts credit Pakistan with using the material to make nuclear weapons. Pakistan supports the cutoff regionally as part of a bilateral NPT regime, and globally. It agreed to a mandate without a reference to stockpiles as long as stockpiles could be addressed in the talks but may not agree to inspection.

Russia: HEU production for weapon purposes ended in 1987. Russia agreed to shut its last three production reactors as soon as alternatives for electricity production could be found. The country has spoken in favour of a cutoff.

USA: The USA ended HEU production for weapons in 1964 and drastically cut plutonium production at that time. In 1988, plutonium production ended and President George Bush formally announced a ban on further production for plutonium and HEU in 1992 (as previously noted). The country has pushed for a cutoff both at the CD and bilaterally but does not support placing existing stocks under safeguards.

Civilian Fissile Production

Many experts believe the world needs no more plutonium and highly enriched uranium. President Clinton announced his support of limits to civilian stockpiling of plutonium and use of HEU in September 1993. Since 1978, to reduce civilian use of HEU, the USA has operated the Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors (RETR) programme.19

Issues Confronting Negotiators

When the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics unravelled, it left a large amount of dangerous nuclear materials dispersed throughout the former Republics (Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus, for example). In a sense, the efforts of reducing the world's stockpile of nuclear weapons created difficulties like the dispersion of nuclear materials, a serious concern over fissile material smuggling and growing incidences of nuclear theft. Additionally, bilateral agreements to dismantle surplus equipment have increased the volume of surplus nuclear materials.20

It has become increasingly clear that negotiation for an FMCT raises a number of complicated and complex choices and questions and how these are resolved will influence the extent to which a cutoff's potential non-proliferation and arms control rewards are realised in practice. Among the more important of these questions are:

* Should the scope of a cutoff agreement be limited to a ban on future production of plutonium and HEU for nuclear explosive purposes?

* If no limits are placed on uses or stockpiles of previously produced materials, should stocks of such materials be declared?

* Should continued production of plutonium or HEU for non-weapons military purposes be permitted?

* Should providing assistance to other countries in the production of plutonium or HEU be banned outright, or only for nuclear explosive purposes?

* Should a more comprehensive or more streamlined approach be taken to cutoff verification?

* What should be the duration of a cutoff agreement?

* What steps, if any, can be taken to contain concern that a cutoff convention that excludes previously-produced materials will "legitimise" the unacknowledged nuclear powers?

* Which countries' adherence should be considered critical for eventual entry-into-force?21

President Clinton had proposed that there would be a ban only on the future production of plutonium and HEU for nuclear explosive purposes. Previously-produced materials would not be placed under any limits. During informal discussions at the CD, some countries had suggested that a cutoff agreement should extend to include a ban on stockpiled fissile material for nuclear weapons and explosives. The latter proposal would not be feasible as efforts to ban stockpiles rather than concentrating on only future production is sure to meet resistance from the threshold NWS (India, Pakistan and Israel), as well as, for that matter, the five NWS, which would jeopardise the chances of an eventual agreement.

Assuming that no restrictions are placed on uses of previously produced plutonium and HEU and that there is no ban on stockpiles, the question arises whether stocks of such materials should be declared and the form such a declaration should take. Such declarations could take several forms, including declarations of current stockpiles of plutonium and HEU in weapons programmes; of current stockpiles without reference to ultimate civil or military status or intended ultimate end use; or of quantities of materials produced in the past for weapons or other purposes. While a declaration of onhand stockpiles of plutonium and HEU would enhance the overall transparency of NWS, it is difficult to foresee the threshold or unacknowledged nuclear countries doing the same, given their long-standing commitment to nuclear ambiguity.

During full-fledged negotiations, the verification aspect of a fissile material cutoff agreement is very likely to prove one of the most politically difficult and in varying degrees, technically complex issues. Two questions that immediately stand out, which are closely related but separate are: what should be the role of the IAEA in cutoff verification? And what overall verification approach or architecture should guide crafting of a cutoff verification regime? In deciding whether to follow a comprehensive or streamlined approach towards verification, efforts must be made to contain perceptions of unfair discrimination between non-nucear and nuclear countries as well as to avoid major inconsistencies between traditional IAEA verification and that of a cutoff convention.

Finally, global security is also threatened by the use of plutonium as fuel in civil reactors because though it requires processing tonnes of the material in a bulk form which is difficult to protect from theft--only a few kilograms is needed to make a Hiroshima size-bomb. Additionally, these risks, which are already substantial, will increase, as the countries of Japan, Britain, France, Russia and India proceed with plans to separate and store ever-larger amounts of weapons-usable plutonium.22 There is also the risk of proliferation by example as civil use of plutonium in one country can serve as an encouragement or excuse for its use in other countries, just as its military use has helped stimulate nuclear weapons proliferation.23 The stock of separated plutonium, which, in 1995, stood at 110 tonnes, is likely to approach 200 tonnes early in the next century.24 Whether this surplus will rise or fall thereafter, and at which rate, will depend on the extent to which current reprocessing and plutonium recycling policies in Europe, Japan and Russia will be implemented. The world's large and increasing proportions of plutonium and HEU show that it is surplus to requirements. While for HEU, the surplus in military stocks will soon approach 1,000 tonnes, for plutonium, the military surplus is well over 100 tonnes.25

India's Stand on FMCT

At the start of the CD's 1997 session in Geneva on January 21, 1997, while President Clinton urged the conference to make "prompt conclusion of a ban on producing fissile material for use in nuclear explosions," the Indian position was that the country might endorse the FMCT provided the CD stuck to the mandate as given by the UNGA in 1993. New Delhi's reading of the UN mandate was that "the FMCT must not be seen in the retrospective sense. It has to be viewed as a prospective measure which prohibits the future production of unsafeguarded material.26

While addressing senior scientists of the Bhaba Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai on May 31, 1997, Prime Minister I.K. Gujral asserted that India would not sign the FMCT and reiterated that though the country was totally committed to the use of nuclear power for peaceful purposes, it was not willing to close its nuclear options as the security of the country would continue to receive the topmost priority. The Prime Minister pointed out that India had refused to sign the CTBT and NPT as these treaties were one-sided and unfair to a developing country like India.27 This assertion marked a new phase in the country's nuclear policy as it is for the first time that India has taken a position on a proposed international treaty. In the case of the NPT and CTBT, India's objections came only after their provisions were known. It was pointed out by a retired Indian diplomat that India did participate in the negotiations for the NPT and the CTBT but "in the case of the FMCT, with the prime minister's categorical rejection, one is not sure whether India will join other nations during the negotiating stage itself."28


Though it is essential that FMCT negotiations continue, Rebecca Johnson, writing in the September 1996 issue of Disarmament Diplomacy warned that "there are fissile materials issues which should be discussed multilaterally, but the basic cutoff which the P-5 (the NWS) are prepared to consider at present would be neither an efficient use of CD time, nor could it deliver on effective international agreement any time soon or guarantee India's early signature."29 The FMCT can become a reality only when the threshold NWS of India, Pakistan and Israel are convinced and assured that the P-5 NWS are as much a party to the "nondiscriminatory, multilateral and internationally and effectively verifiable treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices" (UNGA Resolution 48/75L of December 1993) as they are.



1. SIPRI Yearbook 1996: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security, (Oxford: Oxford University Press: 1996), p. xxvi.

2. The Arms Control Reporter: A Chronicle of Treaties, Negotiations, Proposals, Weapons & Policy, 1996 (Massachusetts, IDDS: 1996), p. 612. A.2.

3. Steve Fetter and 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.

4. Jozef Goldblat, Arms Control, (London; PRIO: 1994), pp. 30-31.

5. Ibid., pp. 31-32.

6. General Assembly Official Records (GAOR), session 8, plenary mtg 470th; December 8, 1953, p. 450.

7. Goldblat, n. 4, p. 32.

8. General Assembly Official Records (GAOR), session 48, plenary mtg. 4th, September 27, 1993, p. 7.

9. GA Res. A/RES/48/751.

10. USIS Fact Sheet, November 7, 1996, New Delhi.

11. Ahmed Kamal, Pakistan's representative to the CD; speech to the conference plenary, June 9, 1994, CD/PV.681.

12. Conference on Disarmament, "Final Record of the Seven Hundred and Third Plenary Meeting," CD/PV 703; March 23, 1995, p. 17, See Annex B.

13. Rebecca Johnson, Nuclear Nonproliferation News, no. 29, July 11, 1995, p. 2.

14. The United Nations Disarmament Yearbook 1995, vol. 29, (New York: UN: 1996), p. 93.

15. See n. 10.

16. SIPRI Yearbook 1995: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security, (London: Oxford University Press: 1995), p. 318. See Tables 9.1 and 9.2 for central estimates of plutonium inventories by NPT states end of 1993, and NWS and threshold states' inventories of weapon-grade plutonium and uranium, (after losses and draw-downs, with error margins) at pp. 319 and 320 respectively. The tables show that much of the largest inventories of weapon-grade plutonium are held by Russia and the USA, while the quantities in the other three NPT NWS are smaller, which reflect the more modest scales of their nuclear arsenals.

17. Ibid., p. 320.

18. See n. 10.

19. See n. 2, p. 612, A.4-A-5.

20. Diana Cipollone, The Fissile Material Cut-Off Debate: A Bibliographical Survey, (New York: UNIDIR: 1996) p. xvi. As the title suggests, this book is an excellent bibliographical survey of all aspects of the fissile material cutoff debate upto the first half of 1996.

21. Lewis A. Dunn, "A Nuclear Weapons Materials Production Cutoff: An Idea Whose Time Has Come," in UNIDIR Research Paper No. 31, Halting the Production of Fissile Materials for Nuclear Weapons, (New York; UNIDIR: 1994), p. 16.

22. David Albright, Frans Berkhout, William Walker, World Inventory of Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium, 1992, (Stockholm; SIPRI, 1993). See Table 12.1, p. 197 and Table 12.8, p. 205 which show that separated weapons-usable plutonium in civil fuel cycles is projected to exceed the amount in the world's military stockpiles by the turn of the century.

23. Adam Bernstein, "Getting Burnt by Weapons Plutonium: Security Implications of US Disposition Options," The Nonproliferation Review, vol. 4, no. 2, Winter 1997, p. 72.

24. SIPRI 1995, n. 16, p. 327.

25. Ibid., pp. 26-27.

26. Times of India, February 17, 1997.

27. Times of India, June 1, 1997.

28. Times of India, June 2, 1997.

29. Quoted in n. 2, p. 612, C.5.