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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 34, February 1999

The Fissban: Stocks, Scope and Goals
By Annette Schaper


After some years of stagnation, following the drawing up of the text of a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) between 1994-96, the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva seems to be generating a new momentum in the face of a fresh major challenge - negotiation of a fissile materials treaty, or fissban. (1) Anxiously, observers wonder whether this year will see the first real progress on the fissban since the 'false dawn' of March 1995 when the CD approved the 'Shannon Report', the mandate for an ad hoc committee drawn up by Canada's then-Ambassador Gerald Shannon. (2) After intensive discussions dating from January 1994, Shannon was able to report that the "Conference on Disarmament decides to establish an Ad Hoc Committee on a 'Ban on the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other explosive devices'", and that the Conference "directs the Ad Hoc Committee 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."

One thing is clear: the negotiations will not be easy. There is a great deal of deep disagreement about the substance, scope, purpose and even name of the Treaty. Different views of what the Treaty is primarily intended to represent a contribution to, disarmament or non-proliferation, have led to stalemate in the CD since the adoption of the Shannon mandate, and remain the biggest likely cause of further stalemate.

The controversy focuses primarily on the question whether to include existing stocks. Some proponents of the inclusion of stocks seem to believe that only then will the aspect of nuclear disarmament be sufficiently covered; others want to exclude the topic of existing stocks completely, arguing that the whole point of the measure is to cut-off future production.

However, nowhere amid all this debate has much clarification taken place as to what "inclusion of stocks" means. Is a complete ban of all existing military materials to be interpreted as including that deployed in nuclear warheads? In that case, the Treaty would be synonymous with a Comprehensive Nuclear Disarmament Treaty, whose acceptance at present is still so unlikely that insisting on it would serve only to create a profound impasse. On the other hand, some concern about stocks is surely well justified: the quantities of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium (Pu) in use or previously utilised for nuclear weapon purposes are so huge that they would easily be sufficient to provide for arsenals greater than those reached during the peaks of the Cold War. Concerns about these oversized quantities and calls for their reduction are on the international agenda anyway and should be taken seriously. Between the unrealistic insistence on the elimination of all military fissile materials and the other extreme, the refusal to mention them at all, is a wide margin of possible interpretation of what "inclusion" of stocks could mean.

Categories and Options

In order to create more clarity, it is useful to distinguish between several categories of fissile materials, according to their utilization:

  1. Pu and HEU in operational nuclear weapons and their logistics pipeline. As long as there is not comprehensive nuclear disarmament, the existence of such material must be accepted.
  2. Pu and HEU held in reserve for nuclear explosives purposes, in assembled weapons or in other forms. As a consequence of already ongoing disarmament, nuclear warheads are kept in storage. Further dismantlement is planned, but capacities are sometimes limited. The treaties that are the most likely to address such materials are future strategic arms reduction (START) treaties.
  3. Pu and HEU withdrawn from dismantled weapons. Some of this material is technically still in a state that reveals sensitive design information. Further processing will eliminate this attached information, however, capacities are limited. A decision whether the material in this category will be put in reserve or will be considered excess has not yet been made.
  4. Pu and HEU considered excess and designated for transfer into the civilian use, but not declared as such. This decision is first taken on a national level.
  5. Pu and HEU considered excess and declared for transfer into the civilian use. Examples are 36 tons (t) of Pu declared excess by the US and 50 t declared excess by Russia. Only 2 t of US Pu have been submitted to safeguards so far.
  6. Civilian Pu and HEU. These materials and their production facilities are under IAEA full scope safeguards in non-nuclear-weapon States. The nuclear-weapon States (NWS) and States outside the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) are not yet obliged to accept similar full-scope safeguards. All materials under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards should be considered civilian.

The process of nuclear disarmament is moving materials down these categories. A definition of "inclusion of stocks" must make clear which of these categories will be banned, allowed, capped, reduced, declared, controlled, put under safeguards, and to what extent. In the following discussion, some examples are presented that give an idea which variations of a potential scope might be under consideration.

The original proposal was a ban only on future production without measures on existing materials. It would cement what is already almost reality among the NWS. As long as no other measures on existing materials are taken, the major benefit would be ensuring non-production among the States with nuclear-weapons programmes outside the NPT - Israel, India and Pakistan - assuming they could be persuaded to participate. This approach is likely to find broad acceptance in the NWS. A disadvantage is that the NWS would retain a huge reservoir of military direct-use materials for rearmament. There would be no declarations, let alone safeguards of this reservoir, and although it must be appreciated that the US and Russia have already commenced such activities, they are not obliged to go on or not to withdraw already implemented measures.

A more consistent approach would be to insert some irreversibility into measures, once achieved. An example is not only to ban future production but also to ban the transfer of material back to military uses, once it has become civilian. It would include a ban on withdrawing material from international safeguards. This would go beyond what is currently legal under the voluntary safeguards agreements between the NWS and the IAEA which allow for the withdrawal of materials from safeguarding "in exceptional circumstances". These measures could become reinforced by declarations or registers of materials that have become excess to explosive needs. One advantage would be that the amount of military material can legally only be reduced, not enlarged. However, the NWS and the non-members of the NPT could still keep stocks as large as they pleased, albeit under some political pressure to justify their stance. Legally, they could classify as much material as they liked as being "necessary for maintaining the stockpile" without even revealing the numbers involved. But the introduction of registers and declarations would insert momentum into the nuclear disarmament process. It would promote the perception that it is an ongoing process. Registers are by definition transition-measures, or measures charting situations in transition and flux, and thus possess the potential to change with every new disarmament measure.

An additional possibility would be to create more obstacles against a reversal of the disarmament process. An important obstacle would be international safeguards; more precisely, the definition of a process or a timetable after which declared excess material will be submitted to safeguards. However, it must be appreciated that with regard to some materials, difficult technical processes must be applied in order to remove sensitive information. These processes are dependant on funds, technical circumstances, and related international negotiations. A too precise planning of such measures would probably go beyond of what is possible in fissban negotiations. But it must be kept in mind that the transition of materials from category 5 of the above list down to category 6 constitutes the final step of disarmament, and is equivalent to submitting them to safeguards. An option could be a general commitment to implement safeguards as soon as practicable. An advantage would be that the control over fissile materials would be steadily increased and would thereby better serve disarmament and non-proliferation. Moreover, related activities would be confirmed and strengthened, especially the already ongoing trilateral negotiations between Russia, the US and the IAEA on the verification of plutonium made available through disarmament.

An even more far-reaching approach would be not only built-in mechanisms for irreversibility but also for reduction. Instead of building in only some political pressure not to keep military stocks too large, some more binding disarmament obligations would be created if the scope of a fissban would also cover the obligation to adjust the upper limits of unsafeguarded material to future nuclear disarmament treaties, e.g. a START-III Treaty and others that might come. This implies that these limits must be made plausible, with rough estimates of how much is averagely needed for one warhead, soon after the next nuclear reduction treaty is concluded. This will create pressure to keep the limits low. As a consequence, the limits will not be much larger than actual need, e.g. in weapons and in reserve for military purposes (categories 1 and 2). Large ambiguous stocks considered excess but not declared so (categories 3 and 4) will be delegitimized as a consequence.

Again, there are advantages and disadvantages: the major advantage is that most of the military material will after some time be irreversibly transferred into civilian categories, thereby constituting true nuclear disarmament. The commitments of Article VI of the NPT and of the Principles and Objectives agreed at the Treaty's 1995 Review and Extension Conference would be reinforced. The major disadvantage, however, is that the declaration and registration of different upper limits ranging from more than hundred tons down to zero may constitute an incentive for disagreements and conflicts. Participants in negotiations may raise the argument of discrimination. Some delegations are likely to object to numbers other than zero for States outside the NPT. Certainly, this would pose a challenge for the negotiation skills of diplomats. In addition, such strong commitments are currently disliked by most of the NWS who still try to keep their national actions as independent and opaque as possible.

Finally, the other end of a broad spectrum of possibilities is the demand to reduce all material for explosive purposes (categories 1-5) in a defined timetable down to zero. This is nothing less than a timetable for comprehensive nuclear disarmament. This has so far been completely unacceptable to the NWS, and has led to the previous deadlock in the CD. In fact, a fissban has always been understood as a step towards nuclear disarmament and as a disarmament symbol, but not as the final nuclear disarmament treaty. Time-bound proposals are always problematic where substantial problems have to be solved. They neglect the obstacles and problems that have hitherto resisted nuclear disarmament. Proponents of timetables for nuclear disarmament refuse to accept the need to devise and implement solutions for these problems prior to the final push for abolition.


The disagreements on stocks stem from different views about the goals to be achieved by a fissban. For some delegations and observers, a fissban is just a vehicle to get the States outside the NPT incorporated under some control regime. Others believe the negotiations provide a vital forum where the call for comprehensive nuclear disarmament can be expressed. But both views are too limited. The fissban has the potential to be part of, and a promoter of, the already ongoing disarmament process. In recent years many activities have been undertaken on a practical level. International efforts are underway to transfer Russian and US plutonium and HEU excess to weapons use to civilian use. Part of this effort is negotiations between the US, Russia, and the IAEA to implement verification on such materials. Numerous international projects are taking place with the goal of improving the security of fissile materials and nuclear installations in Russia. The major users of civilian plutonium have negotiated new guidelines in order to enhance the transparency, security, and safety of civilian plutonium, and the IAEA's safeguards system has been reformed and rendered more effective. All these measures are small, necessary, intermediate steps for further nuclear disarmament.

The fissban would insert an element of irreversibility into the steps that have already been taken, and it would give transparency measures a boost. It would introduce verification and safeguards in the nuclear-weapon States. It must be stressed that the disarmament benefits of the Treaty will in large part be determined by verification, even if the Treaty only has a modest scope. As a consequence of this verification, the mentality concerning nuclear materials and facilities in the NWS and States outside the NPT would be changed: nuclear installations and materials would become a matter of international responsibility and not just of national decision-making. This change is long overdue. The Treaty would work on tasks that are ahead anyway, and during this work it would become clear that more work has to follow; that it is an important, but just one more, step in an ongoing process. It is, therefore, important that all delegations accept that the Treaty will have two goals that reinforce each other: disarmament and non-proliferation.

Notes and References

1. Since the names Fissile Materials Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT), Fissile Materials Treaty (FMT), and Cut-Off have become unfortunately closely associated with specific agendas, the author has decided to adapt in this paper the shorthand term "fissban", first coined by Rebecca Johnson.

2. 'Report of Ambassador Gerald E. Shannon of Canada on the Most Appropriate Arrangement to Negotiate a Treaty Banning the Production of Fissile Material for Nuclear Weapons or Other Nuclear Explosive Purposes,' CD/1299, 24 March 1995.

Annette Schaper is Senior Research Associate at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt.

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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