The proliferation of fissile materials that can be used for developing nuclear weapons has remained a key concern of the international non-proliferation regime. Fissile material is referred to as a material that can “sustain an explosive fission reaction”; that is necessary for any nuclear explosion. Thus, to control the spread of nuclear weapons, it was necessary to have control not only on the technology but also on the material which is required in the making of nuclear warheads.
Efforts to control nuclear technology and nuclear materials started right after the world witnessed their first use by the US. In 1953, US President Eisenhower called for their elimination in his famous “Atoms for Peace” speech before the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). However, that ban on nuclear fissile material could not become reality during the Cold War and renewed efforts started on it after the Cold War. In 1993 UNGA passed Resolution 48/75L, which called upon member states to have a “non-discriminatory multilateral and effectively verifiable treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons and nuclear devices”.
Hence, the ‘Fissile Material Treaty’ FM(C)T was proposed to ban the production of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium (Pu). The United Nations Conference on Disarmament (CD), comprising 65 members was established as the only multilateral negotiation medium/forum on disarmament. It began its discussions in 1994 to provide a framework for the negotiations. For that purpose Ambassador Gerald Shannon was appointed by the CD as special coordinator to coordinate/determine the opinions/views of member states on the future scope of any multilateral treaty/agreement to prohibit the production of fissile material to be used in nuclear weapons. In this regard, one important point is that Non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) of the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) are prohibited from pursuing HEU and Pu and 5 de-jure nuclear weapon states (NWS) have already announced unilateral moratoriums on fissile material productions. However, a significant quantity of fissile materials that could be utilized in making thousands of nuclear weapons was already possessed by these states.
Fissile material production is important for those states that are in the process of building nuclear technology because their security is dependent on their nuclear deterrence vis-à-vis their adversary. Based on that, Ambassador Shannon was supposed to provide a framework that would cover all fissile materials in the treaty. These include; not only the cutoff of future production but also existing stockpiles. However, unfortunately, Shannon Mandate produced on 25 March 1995, as CD document 1299 (CD/1299) did not explicitly discuss or describe the scope of negotiations regarding the fissile material and called for the establishment of the AD-HOC Committee to discuss fissile material treaty within the CD. Afterward, CD had hardly a few breakthroughs in the negotiation of the fissile material treaty.
In the same vein, the two core concerns regarding banning fissile material remain; the inclusion of existing stockpiles and the verification mechanism adopted for ensuring fissile material production is stopped in countries. In absence of including existing stockpiles in the treaty, the asymmetries between states would freeze at current levels. This in turn would likely put many states in a position of permanent advantage and many in a position of permanent disadvantage vis-à-vis their security concerns.
Specifically in the South Asian context, such a scenario would severely damage the strategic stability of the region. It would put Pakistan in a disadvantageous position vis-à-vis India since the latter has been rapidly augmenting its conventional and unconventional military capabilities over the years. While being concerned by this, Pakistan adopted the position on FMT in CD that it is necessary to address the issue of existing stockpiles. Furthermore, Indian fissile material and its existing stockpiles are also significant given India’s nuclear deals with countries like the US. Similarly, the NSG waiver and India-specific IAEA safeguards further add to the relevance of this concern. This would have direct consequences on nuclear balance in South Asia since “every pound” of uranium India gets to import would let it use that pound of uranium for increasing the number of its nuclear warheads.
Moreover, India is also not transparent about its fissile material, a critical issue in this regard is the Indian civilian resources of Plutonium (Pu) that are outside the safeguards of IAEA but are designated as “strategic reserve”. It is pertinent to mention here that Pakistani officials have time and again asserted that Pakistan does not want nuclear parity with India. But growing and existing Indian unsafeguarded and weapon usable stockpiles are a matter of great concern for Pakistan. This would likely have a direct impact on the minimum sufficient numbers of nuclear assets that Pakistan might need for its security.
Hence, FM(C)T at its current stage would just be a non-proliferation measure and would not contribute to disarmament. If the focus of the treaty is actual disarmament, existing stockpiles in addition to banning future material must be added to the scope of the treaty. Any such treaty would eliminate the existing gaps between the capabilities of states and the international non-proliferation regime might become non-discriminatory in nature. Many states raise the question of the verification process if existing stockpiles are to be made part of the fissile material ban treaty; which also raises the question of how serious these states are towards disarmament. Only, if FMT is negotiated and adopted with points of concern being properly addressed it would be a significant contribution towards non-proliferation at regional and international levels. Likewise, this would further contribute towards enhancing the strategic stability of the various regions including South Asia.
*Ahyousha Khan, Research Associate, Strategic Vision Institute, Islamabad.