The FMCT: Temptation and Dashed Hopes at the Conference on Disarmament

Tasneem Jamal

Ernie Regehr

The Ploughshares Monitor Autumn 2007 Volume 28 Issue 3

This article is based on Ernie Regehr’s presentation to the Pugwash 50th-Anniversary workshop, “Revitalizing Nuclear Disarmament,” which took place in Pugwash, Nova Scotia, 5-7 July 2007.

Last year Daryl Kimball (2006) of the US Arms Control Association reminded us of just how tantalizingly close the world is to consensus support for the start of negotiations on a permanent ban on the production of fissile material for weapons purposes:

There has been a near-critical mass of support for the FMCT for several years. Four of the five original nuclear-weapon states have publicly declared they have suspended fissile production for weapons purposes. The fifth, China, is believed to have halted such production. India and Pakistan continue to produce plutonium and highly enriched uranium, but have stated that they support negotiation of a global FMCT. Israel’s fissile production activity is not well known, but it has not publicly expressed opposition to a multilateral and verifiable FMCT. North Korea restarted production of relatively small quantities of plutonium for weapons purposes, but has agreed to verifiably halt such production in the past.

The extent to which the international community already assumes a fissile materials production ban is illustrated in the Blix commission’s reference to the FMCT as a “vital global agreement” that is “not negotiated” (WMDC 2006, p. 24). Indeed, a broad consensus (that is not the same as unanimous support and exists despite deep divisions over details) has persisted since 1946 when the Atomic Energy Commission’s first annual report to the Security Council recommended the establishment of an international agency to, among other responsibilities, provide for the disposal of fissile material stocks to ensure the prohibition of the manufacture and possession of nuclear weapons (Barbour 1999).

During this time the majority voice in the international community has insisted that substantive work on the fissile materials issue at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) be carried out in the context of parallel attention (not necessarily negotiation) to three other issues (negative security arrangements, nuclear disarmament, and prevention of an arms race in outer space), in recognition that various elements of the international community have different but still legitimate security concerns worthy of multilateral attention. In 2003 this linkage was blessed by the A-5 formula1 and there is no prospect that FMCT negotiations will go forward in the CD without simultaneous work on the other issues.

In 2004 the Bush Administration sought to unilaterally limit the parameters of the negotiation by insisting that effective verification of an FMCT would be too costly and “could compromise [key signatories’] core national security interests” (Ford 2007). Canadian Ambassador Paul Meyer reminded the CD of the established and core requirement that compliance with arms control agreements be verifiable and concluded that an FMCT without verification provisions would be “merely a vague declaratory statement of good intentions about future production” and as such would be a “disservice” to the international community (Reaching Critical Will 2006).

The Shannon mandate,2 however, affirms the principle that no one state or group of states can set preconditions to restrict the proposed negotiations. Hence, insistence on a broad, unconditional mandate for fissile materials negotiations will continue, and work in the CD will not proceed in violation of that principle.

Is it time to pull the FMCT out of the CD?

In 2005 a group of six states3 informally circulated a draft resolution proposing that the General Assembly establish “open-ended Ad Hoc Committees” for each of the four priority issues of the A-5 formula. The FMCT Ad Hoc Committee was called on to “negotiate, on the basis of the report of the CD’s Special Coordinator (CD/1299) and the mandate contained therein [the Shannon mandate], a non-discriminatory, multilateral and internationally and effectively verifiable treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.” In justifying this new course, they cited not only the continuing failure of the CD to agree to a Program of Work, but also the failure of the 2005 NPT Review Conference and the 2005 UN Summit “to address substantively the non-proliferation and disarmament agenda.” Nonetheless, the proposal was careful to recognize the CD’s formal role and purpose and thus included the proviso that “upon the adoption of a Programme of Work in the Conference on Disarmament, the work of the relevant Ad Hoc Committees will cease and the results obtained shall be transmitted to the President of the Conference on Disarmament.”

This proposal provoked a sharp response from some nuclear weapon states, especially the United States, which circulated an informal document denouncing it as “a divisive proposal” that was trying to create a “‘phantom’ CD” and declaring that “the United States will NOT participate in any international body to whose establishment the United States does not agree.” The statement concluded that the “United States will not consider itself bound in any way by any agreement emerging from such a body.” The six states subsequently withdrew the proposal, noting that the six CD Presidents for 2006 were planning structured discussions in the CD on each of the core issues, but serving notice that “if, for whatever reason, the CD turns in another sterile year in 2006, we will retain the option of reintroducing this initiative as a way of ensuring that there are democratic and multilateral alternatives to a situation where the security interests of the many are being held hostage by the policies of a few.”

The measure was not proposed in 2006, largely because of invigorated discussions at the CD that year. However, the continuing stalemate at the CD suggests that the time might be at hand to bring the measure forward again.

Prospects for action

The Middle Powers Initiative (2007, p. 4) brief to the 2007 NPT PrepCom summarizes the benefits of a fissile materials ban:

Achievement of an FMCT would restrain arms racing involving India, China, and Pakistan, cap Israel’s arsenal, and establish ceilings on other arsenals as well. A verified FMCT also would help build a stable framework for reduction and elimination of warheads and fissile material stocks; help prevent acquisition of fissile materials by terrorists; meet a key NPT commitment; and institutionalize one of the basic pillars of a nuclear weapons-free world.

Most of the key players — those with fissile materials production capability — have incentives to join negotiations (Rissanen 2006, p. 16). The US and Russia, as well as the UK and France, would welcome an FMCT that would cap production in China, India, Israel, North Korea (DPRK), and Pakistan. (Of course, steps are in place or being pursued to eliminate DPRK production, with or without an FMCT.) China would welcome a cap on Indian production, and India would welcome a cap on Pakistani production. Israel would derive advantage from an FMCT that leaves its existing stocks in place but verifiably precludes production by other states in its region. Pakistan has little incentive to negotiate a production ban, unless it were to include controls over existing stocks and thus lead to some level of parity with India.

Of course, there is no shortage of contrary interests. China, in particular, with its more limited stocks, worries about the ability to expand its arsenal if its minimum deterrence is threatened, notably by US missile defence. India’s emphasis on a “non-discriminatory” treaty is rooted in its longstanding rejection of the NPT double standard. But India is obviously divided — uncomfortable with a treaty that would freeze its stocks to levels significantly below those of China, but tempted by a treaty that would freeze Pakistani stocks at levels well below those of India. And the US rejection of verification is a reflection of the current Administration’s general approach toward multilateralism: welcomed as an instrument to constrain the options of others, rejected when its own options are constrained. The other states of the Middle East obviously have little incentive to pursue a treaty that halts production but leaves Israel’s stocks in place.


A production cutoff treaty (an FMCT) would ban all future fissile material production after a negotiated cutoff date. Thus, it would formalize the declared moratoria of the UK, US, Russia, and France; ensure that China becomes part of the Permanent 5 (of the UN Security Council) halt to production; and ensure that fissile material production by India, Israel, and Pakistan is capped. Essentially, an FMCT would be a horizontal nonproliferation measure.

An agreement to control fissile materials (an FMT) would deal with existing stocks as well as future production, including provisions to limit the weaponization of existing materials produced for weapons purposes, and thus would be a vertical nonproliferation, or disarmament, measure as well.

The International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM 2006) suggests that in either case a treaty would also ban for weapons purposes:

  • Fissile materials in civilian use,
  • Materials from dismantled weapons that have been declared excess for future military use, and
  • Highly enriched uranium designated for naval reactor use.

Verification of an FMCT

Earlier this year Canada (2007) submitted a working paper to the CD, setting out some possible basic approaches to a verification regime that would ensure “confidence that all States Parties are in compliance with their treaty-based commitment not to produce further fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.” The paper concludes:

It should be possible to develop a technically, financially, legally and politically effective package of verification measures by using existing IAEA definitions, extending or adapting elements of the existing IAEA comprehensive safeguards regime to NWS and non-NPT states, and exploring supplemental measures for existing stockpiles and declared excess fissile material. The inclusion of such a verification package in an FMCT will help build confidence among States Parties that the treaty will meet its objectives.

The IPFM (2007, p. 43) discusses possible verification provisions in some detail and draws the conclusion that either a “comprehensive approach” or a “focused approach” to verification of an FMCT would be technically possible and affordable. “In a comprehensive approach, the entire civilian fuel cycles of the nuclear weapon states would be put under the same type of safeguards required by the NPT in the non-weapon states.… In a focused approach, safeguards would be applied only on enrichment and reprocessing facilities, and on any new fissile material produced in these facilities.” The report concludes that, “not only would the cost of verifying an FMCT be less than sometimes imagined, but so also would be the cost difference between comprehensive and focused safeguards” (IPFM 2007, p. 45).

Next steps

The international community needs to intensify diplomatic measures to advance toward concrete action. It must

  • keep up the pressure for taking the FMCT/FMT issue (along with the other three A-5 issues) outside the CD until such time as the CD is prepared to enter into negotiations without preconditions. In particular, a measure such as the resolution proposed to the First Committee in 2005 should be revived and circulated for co-sponsorship.
  • promote and sponsor ongoing technical work, for example, the studies and engagement of the International Panel on Fissile Materials and national working papers such as the Canadian paper on verification. In addition, the CD should continue to welcome expert briefings or member states should sponsor briefings to which CD member states are invited.


  1. The 23 January 2003 initiative of five CD ambassadors for a program of work based on four concurrent Ad Hoc committees that would respectively “negotiate with a view to reaching agreement on effective international arrangements to assure non-nuclear weapon States against the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons”; “exchange information and views on practical steps for progressive and systematic efforts to attain [the cessation of the nuclear arms race and nuclear disarmament]”; “negotiate, on the basis of [the Shannon mandate], a non-discriminatory, multilateral and internationally and effectively verifiable treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices”; and “identify and examine, without limitation, … any specific topics or proposals … [toward] preventing an arms race in outer space” (CD 2003).
  2. The agreement, facilitated and reported on 24 March 1995 by Ambassador Gerald Shannon, that the CD would establish an Ad Hoc Committee on a “ban on the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices,” and that the Committee was directed “to negotiate a non-discriminatory, multilateral and internationally and effectively verifiable treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.”
  3. Brazil, Canada, Kenya, Mexico, New Zealand, Sweden.


Barbour, Lauren. 1999. Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty: A Chronology. In David Albright & Kevin O’Neill, Eds. The Challenges of Fissile Material Control. Washington, DC: Institute for Science and International Security.

Canada, Government of. 2007. An FMCT Scope-Verification Arrangement. Working Paper.

Conference on Disarmament. 2003. Initiative of Ambassadors Dembri, Lint, Reyes, Salander and Vega. CD/1693, 23 January.

Ford, Christopher. 2007. The United States and the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty. Presentation to a conference, “Preparing for 2010: Getting the Process Right.”17 March, Annecy, France.

International Panel on Fissile Materials. 2006. Global Fissile Material Report 2006: First report of the International Panel on Fissile Materials.

Kimball, Daryl G. 2006. “Accelerating the Entry Into Force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and Securing a Fissile Material Cut Off Agreement.” Presentation for the 18th UN Conference on Disarmament Issues in Yokohama, August.

Middle Powers Initiative. 2007. Towards 2010: Priorities for NPT Consensus. Middle Powers Initiative for the NPT Preparatory Committee, April. New York.

Reaching Critical Will. 2006. Conference on Disarmament Starts Thematic Debate on Issue of a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty. Daily summary of CD debate, 16 May.

Rissanen, Jenni. 2006. Time for a Fissban – or Farewell? Disarmament Diplomacy. Issue #83, Winter.

Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission. 2006. Weapons of Terror: Freeing the World of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Arms. Stockholm.

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