Prospecting for a Fissile Material (Cut-off) Treaty: Opportunities to Re-engage

Looking at the topography of the current global nuclear ‘order’, the casual observer might be reassured to see that there have been substantial reductions in the number of nuclear weapons from inventories from their peak of over 70,000 in 1986 to around 14,500 today. But the desired goal of a ‘world without nuclear weapons’ envisaged by former US President Barack Obama in his (in)famous Prague Speech, now appears a quixotic initiative having simultaneously ramped up nuclear modernisation programmes, an approach embraced with enthusiasm by his successor.

The Fissile Material (Cut-off) Treaty (or FM(C)T) is a key point of departure for global disarmament, a treaty that would prohibit the further production of fissile material and could possibly include existing stocks as well. Despite what appears to be a deteriorating international security environment, protracted FM(C)T negotiations have been given renewed priority under Canadian leadership, a welcome development in a disarmament agenda that has been stifled by security challenges.

The most challenging technical task when building or supporting a nuclear arsenal is the production of fissile material. The IAEA’s widely accepted definition of fissile material states that it is capable of sustaining a chain reaction using radioactive isotopes, and is usually highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium. Early efforts aimed at limiting the production of fissile material under the Baruch Plan (1946) were blocked by the Soviets, through concerns they would become ensnared in an inferior nuclear position to the United States (who had already begun stockpiling HEU since 1942). The proposal has been stymied ever since.

Arms control in a post-Cold War world

Hopes that post-Soviet Russia’s integration into the global economy under Boris Yeltsin would herald a new chapter in disarmament did record notable achievements in arms reductions – including Ukraine and Belarus relinquishing their Soviet era weapons, as well as bilateral arms reduction agreements, but fell short of a binding framework committing states to the cessation of the production of fissile material. With the easing of tensions at the turn of the decade, the diplomatic will to discuss arms control faded in absence of the ideological and military antagonism that preceded it in the 1980s. Conversely, the post-Cold War ‘peace’ gradually subsided after the NATO-Russia crisis in Yugoslavia and Pakistan and India’s nuclear tests in 1998, and subsequently the modernisation of reduced nuclear forces led to indefinite entrenchment, which is systemically undermining the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

A multilateral arms control agreement aimed at capping the current number of nuclear weapons in the world was always likely to face pushback as Asian states expanded their nuclear arsenals. Pakistan’s military saw their emerging nuclear arsenal as a national security imperative, instrumental in counterbalancing India’s conventional force superiority. At the UN Conference on Disarmament FMCT expert preparatory group meeting (2018), Pakistan’s delegation reiterated its position that the scope of the treaty must cover all stockpiles, past or present:

Pakistan stands ready to consider a treaty on fissile material that covers existing stocks or past production. We believe that such a treaty would promote nuclear disarmament and also be in Pakistan’s interests, as it would address our insecurities arising from the asymmetries in national material fissile holdings”.

Verifying fissile material holdings

Tying past global stockpiles to a fissile material treaty offers reassurance on national security dilemmas. This would prevent a ‘lock in’ on Pakistan’s ongoing enrichment activities in the context of India’s greater internal production capacity – considering India’s potential ability to reprocess uranium for military purposes through its vast civilian stocks. Critical verification measures would be required to confirm the level and use of existing stocks, which would de facto guarantee full disclosure of the precise quantity of national holdings and limiting the quantity of material. An inspection body would need unrestricted access to enrichment and storage facilities, civilian or military, as well as some means to verify fissile materials in warheads, and to be able to follow the entire nuclear fuel cycle. Such rigorous processes are necessary, because low enriched uranium used in civilian reactors can be re-enriched in identical processes to acquire weapons grade.

This is a major technical challenge and exercise in trust between states. The FM(C)T is currently at blank canvas status, with conversations in principle, though multilateral negotiations are yet to commence. However, the work of the high-level expert preparatory group mandated under UN General Assembly resolution 71/259, whose role is to make recommendations for negotiating a future non-discriminatory and verifiable FM(C)T, is making modest progress. In its 2018 report, the preparatory group proposed four key provisions crucial in negotiating a future treaty, pertaining to treaty scope, verification, definitions, and legal and institutional arrangements. On the topic of scope, the report recommends a provision obliging states to declare all nuclear material and subjecting it to the treaty’s verification regime, which would include a verification annex, a comprehensive IAEA safeguards agreement, and individual agreements to be negotiated between the verification body and state parties. A non-discriminatory FM(C)T would apply the same standards to verification and inspection to all countries with enrichment facilities, civilian or military.

Granting unrestricted access for inspectors holds real potential to foster multilateral co-operation, since subjecting all stocks to verification would promote confidence in determining enrichment purposes, volume, safety, technical capabilities, and intended use. Being privy to a state’s enrichment activities will help to assuage concerns about intentions with clearer transparency on capacity through disclosing and subjecting all stocks to verification. Those who have declared unilateral moratoria on fissile material production also stand to gain from co-operation. China is the only NPT Nuclear Weapon State yet to officially announce a moratorium on production, though it is widely believed to not have produced fissile material since 1991. Disclosure of China’s stocks, for example, would assist India’s preparedness to accede to a treaty, which will in turn help convince Pakistan to end its opposition to FM(C)T. Circumventing efforts to implement a binding treaty through unilateral declarations may be an important interim measure, but only amounts to a normative opprobrium against fissile material production devoid of robust compliance/enforcement mechanisms with no safeguards against potential future production.

Recent developments

All the NPT Nuclear Weapon States have at some point, expressed support for an FM(C)T. What currently appears to be lacking is the political will to move forward on negotiations. Yet, there are encouraging efforts within the international community which have focused on reviving FM(C)T talks. The work of the expert preparatory group followed a 2015 report (also chaired by Canada) by governmental experts, acting as a reference point for future negotiations. In the same year, France added its support for a treaty by becoming the first country to submit a draft version of an FM(C)T.

The US-Russian plutonium disposition agreement – a bilateral deal to eliminate 34 tonnes of military grade plutonium by fabricating mixed oxide fuel and burning it in nuclear power reactors – a process that invited IAEA monitors to inspect stock disposition, offers insight on prospective fissile material agreements that build trust and add clearer visibility on future FM(C)T guidelines.

The preparatory group’s work has been very basic, but provides clues on negotiating a future treaty. This current juncture also presents an opportunity for civil society to campaign for more serious attempts to begin negotiations on an FM(C)T signed by all the nuclear armed states, which would draw wider public scrutiny and attention to such practical disarmament initiatives and encourage governments to sketch out purposeful steps on the road ahead.

How can civil society help?

A brief inspection into the wider goals within the disarmament community, however, reveals a paucity of sustained civil society focus campaigning against future fissile material production. With very little non-governmental oversight, the debate has largely been confined to technical experts sitting in the United Nations Conference on Disarmament – a moribund body comprised of veto wielding states that looks short of new ideas that would initiate negotiations.

To that end, a potential starting point for the disarmament community to engage with, would be to leverage and simplify the existing knowledge on banning nuclear material, and then communicating the contemporary dilemmas that this poses to peace and stability. Conventional campaigning that pays closer attention to existing arms control measures appears alarmingly obvious, though the fact that it has not been seriously picked up by pressure groups suggests that more external pressure can be applied to negotiators. If FM(C)T is to become a reality, its proponents would benefit from transmitting a focused message that refrains from delving into technical complexities, but informs public debate on credible deterrence alternatives.

To date, detailed research on the FM(C)T can be found in technical publications by institutions such as the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF), the International Panel on Fissile Materials, Federation of American Scientists (FAS), and contributions by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Developing this focus upon an FM(C)T could straddle divided opinion within civil society on the ban treaty, as it would be a complementary practical measure on the journey towards zero nuclear weapons. Public scrutiny will also assist the efforts of negotiators on the FM(C)T debate and in developing further dialogue between governments and civil society. An added layer of informed activism will nourish the strength of the debate, as well as the will – or lack thereof – to overcome outstanding obstacles in finalising a treaty.

More than seventy years on since the Baruch plan was dismissed, the national security argument that led to fissile material production remains a key reason why the international community has been unsuccessful in concluding a final treaty today. One of the key benefits of FM(C)T is the strengthening of non-proliferation ideas through retroactive strategies, i.e. preventing their further spread, and then working on reducing the weapons that we currently live with. To that end, the preparatory group has grappled with resolving these concerns, and the issue would benefit from civil society activism to sustain public debate on the topic for future disarmament strategies.

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