Article in Politics / Peace & Security
All established nuclear-weapon powers (China, France, Russia, the UK and the USA) say they are in favour of reducing and eventually eliminating nuclear weapons. Banning the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons is the obvious first step towards comprehensive nuclear disarmament.

All the established nuclear-weapon powers (China, France, Russia, the UK and the USA) say that they are in favour of reducing and eventually eliminating nuclear weapons. A nuclear-weapon-free world seems to be today’s common goal. Banning the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons is the obvious first step towards the achievement of comprehensive nuclear disarmament.

The importance of such a ban was first recognized 66 years ago, soon after the end of the Second World War, by, for example, the 1946 Acheson-Lilienthal plan, which proposed that nuclear weapons should be eliminated from national arsenals and that nuclear technology should be put under international control. The failure to achieve a ban on nuclear weapons triggered the Soviet-American nuclear arms race.

It was a long time before the issue was taken up again. In December 1993, the UN General Assembly passed, without opposition, Resolution 48/75L which called for negotiations on: "A non-discriminatory, multinational and internationally and effectively verifiable treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons and other nuclear explosive devices"(1). To start the process of implementing the Resolution, Ambassador Shannon of Canada was asked to carry out consultations at the 65-member Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva, the international forum for negotiating arms control and disarmament measures.

In March 1995, the CD agreed, by consensus, that it was the appropriate forum to discuss a ban on the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons, generally called the Fissile Materials Cutoff Treaty (FMCT), and that it should establish an ad hoc committee with a mandate based on Resolution 48/75L.

However, it was not until August 1998 that the CD agreed to adopt the Shannon Report as a basis for negotiations and the ad hoc committee was finally set up. Even then, the committee did not meet because the major differences over the scope and verification of a FMCT, which had dogged the earlier consultations, continued to prevent any progress.

Obama stimulates FMCT efforts

On 5 April 2009, US President Barack Obama said, in a speech made in Prague, Czech Republic: “to cut off the building blocks needed for a bomb, the United States will seek a new treaty that verifiably ends the production of fissile materials intended for use in state nuclear weapons. If we are serious about stopping the spread of these weapons, then we should put an end to the dedicated production of weapons-grade materials that create them” (2). The President’s purpose was to break the log-jam.

The negotiation of a ban on the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons, called for by the President, is a necessary but not sufficient step towards nuclear disarmament. Stimulated by the President’s speech, the negotiation of a FMCT did actually begin in mid-2009 in the CD. But progress has fallen far short of President Obama’s wishes.

There is no particular difficulty in writing a treaty banning the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons. A number of governments (for example, Japan) and some non-governmental organizations have produced draft treaties. The most recent one has been published by the International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM), an influential, authoritative and independent group of arms-control and nonproliferation experts from both nuclear weapon and non-nuclear weapon states (3).

Basically, the parties to a FMCT will undertake not to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices and not to acquire from any source or to transfer to any recipient fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices. The fissile materials covered will include: plutonium of any isotopic composition except plutonium that contains 80 percent or more plutonium-238; uranium containing uranium-235 and/or uranium-233 in a weighted concentration equivalent to or greater than 20 percent uranium-235; neptunium-237 and americium-241 and americium-243, and any other fissionable isotope suitable for the manufacture of nuclear weapons; and material containing any combination of the foregoing (3).

CD negotiations for FMCT in the doldrums

Although the basic requirements are easily spelt out, the CD has not yet been able to negotiate a FMCT or even to define its terms. Fundamental differences between the members of the CD have arisen over: the scope of a treaty; the inventories to be included; the definition of what constitutes fissile material; and the kinds of verification and safeguards measures that would be acceptable. The established nuclear-weapon countries (China, France, Russia, the UK, and the USA) emphasize the non-proliferation objectives for an FMCT and, therefore, argue that a ban should only be applied to future production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons. These countries claim to have ceased the military production of fissile materials, while India, Pakistan and Israel are thought to have active programmes for the production of fissile materials for weapons.

There are other major differences. A number of members of the CD, including the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), argue that the FMCT should be non-discriminatory, as called for in Resolution 48/75L. This means that it should indeed cover existing stocks of fissile material as well as future production. Further difficulties have arisen over the definition of 'fissile materials'. Should this just cover so-called 'direct use' (weapon-grade) material or also other fissile material (weapon-usable material)?

Likewise, what activities constitute 'production of fissile materials'? Is it just plutonium reprocessing and uranium enrichment or should other nuclear activities or even civil reactors and spent reactor fuel stores be included? What is the status of 'weapon-usable' fissile material, particularly, civil plutonium separated from spent civil nuclear-power reactors which could be used to fabricate nuclear weapons? The current global stock of civil plutonium amounts to a total of about 260 tonnes, enough to produce about 60,000 nuclear weapons. Given the difficulties and differences, it is, to say the least, hard to be optimistic that the negotiations for a FMCT in the CD will succeed in the near future.

At the moment, Pakistan is the stumbling block in the CD. In the words of an Editorial, published in the New York Times on 20 April 2011, entitled Time for Plan B: A ban on producing fissile material is too important to let one country block negotiations: “Under the terms of the United Nations’ Conference on Disarmament, all 65 participants must agree. Pakistan, which is racing to develop the world’s fifth largest arsenal, is refusing to let the talks move forward.” (4)

Negotiation of a FMCT outside the CD

Pakistan’s attitude to a FMCT hardened after George W. Bush’s administration lifted a ban on civilian nuclear trade with India while keeping the ban in place for Pakistan. The lifting of the ban, which allows India to buy uranium from abroad to fuel its nuclear reactors, was seen by many as a serious mistake mainly because it did not require India to stop the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. Pakistan is, therefore, able to argue that a FMCT would make permanent a significant advantage to India. India already has about 100 nuclear warheads; Pakistan has about 95.

Because of Pakistan’s intransigence, President Obama’s administration is discussing with other countries – such as Britain and France - the possibility of negotiating a ban outside the CD (4). This would follow the pattern of the successful negotiation (concluded at Oslo, Norway on 18 September 1997) of the Ottawa Treaty, officially known as the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction. The Treaty came into force on 1 March 1999.


Getting consensus in the 65-member CD on such a controversial issue as a FMCT was never going to be an easy task. Obama’s new approach of moving the negotiation of a FMCT out of the CD is timely. It may well work.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which is waiting for ratification in the US Senate, sets a qualitative limit to the development of nuclear weapons and a FMCT will set a quantitative limit on the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. Taken together, the two measures will be a crucial contribution towards the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and essential steps towards nuclear disarmament. And, importantly in today's world, they will reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism through the illegal diversion of fissile materials.

In addition, a FMCT will encourage the control of fissile materials from which nuclear weapons or nuclear explosives can be fabricated (weapon-usable fissile materials); increase the proportion of weapon-usable fissile materials under international nuclear safeguards;  improve the effectiveness of nuclear-export policies;  reduce the discrimination inherent in the present NPT regime by narrowing the gap between the mutual obligations of countries with nuclear weapons and those that do not have them (5).

The measures and requirements for the verification and control of a FMCT will be little different to those necessary to enable complete nuclear disarmament to be negotiated. In sum, any progress on nuclear disarmament will make little sense in the absence of a ban on the further production of fissile material.


1. UN General Assembly 48/75L Consensus Resolution, 16 December 1993, Prohibition of the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices,

2. White House Press Office, Remarks by President Barack Obama, Prague, 5 April 2009.

3. Time for Plan B: A ban on producing fissile material is too important to let one country block negotiations, The New York Times, Editorial, 20 April 2011.

4. International Panel on Fissile Materials, IPFM Releases Draft International Treaty to Ban Production of Fissile Materials for Use in Nuclear Weapons: Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty.

5. Frank Barnaby and Nick Ritchie, Why a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty is needed: FMCT Handbook, a guide to a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, Oxford Research Group. to Shut Down Permanently on December 31, 2017

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About the Author 

Charles F Barnaby
Frank Barnaby, a nuclear physicist, worked at the: Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, Aldermaston (1951-57); University College, London

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