The UN’s Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament (CD) has for the first time in 12 years agreed on a program of substantive work. So now, as of the genuinely historic agreement on May 29, negotiations can begin on a key element of that program, the patiently pursued yet persistently resisted agreement to ban the production of fissile material for weapons purposes.

The pursuit of a fissile materials treaty really dates back to the dawn of the nuclear age. In 1946 the Atomic Energy Commission’s first annual report to the Security Council recommended the establishment of an international agency to, among other things, provide for the disposal of fissile material and ensure that the "manufacture and possession" of atomic weapons was prohibited.[i]

Countless UN resolutions since then, including the explicit 1963 General Assembly call for negotiations on a Treaty,[ii] along with two basic agreements on procedure reached more than a decade ago, the “A-5 formula” and the “Shannon mandate,” reflect an enduring global consensus on the importance of ending the production of fissile materials for weapons. Two Review Conferences of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) also called for negotiations on a Treaty.

The majority voice in the CD has long insisted, however, that substantive work on banning fissile materials production should be carried out in the context of parallel attention to three other issues:

-pursuit of a legally-binding instrument to assure non-nuclear weapon states that they will not be subjected to the threat or use of nuclear weapons against them;

-multilateral negotiations or discussion to advance global nuclear disarmament; and

-prevention of an arms race in outer space.

For years, various states have declared their support of one or some of these agenda items, while refusing support for others. Then in 2003 a group of Ambassadors to the CD developed a basic formula which would mandate “negotiations” on fissile materials but only “discussions” on the other three items (leaving open the possibility for moving towards negotiations in the future). This A-5 formula[iii] is incorporated into the May 29 agreement and it honors the basic principle that the international community will not permit certain groups of states to determine that multilateral attention will focus only on their priority issue, to the exclusion of the priorities of others.

Another seemingly insoluble dispute that has hounded the fissile materials issue is the question of whether a proposed treaty should address only a ban on future production or whether it would deal with existing stocks as well.

A fissile materials cut-off treaty (an FMCT) would ban all future fissile material production after a negotiated cut-off date, thus it would formalize the existing moratoria on production in the UK, US, Russia, France, and China, and it would ensure that fissile material production by India, Israel, and Pakistan would be capped. A fissile materials treaty (an FMT), on the other hand, would deal with existing stocks as well as future production, including provisions to limit the weaponization of existing materials produced for weapons purposes.

In 1994 Canadian Ambassador Gerald Shannon was asked to find a way through this dispute and his March 1995 report set out a basic compromise. The formal mandate for fissile materials negotiations would focus on a “ban on the production of fissile material,” but it would also allow delegations to raise other issues, including controls on and destruction of existing stocks, during the course of negotiations. This compromise became known as the Shannon mandate[iv] and is now part of the May 29 agrement. The principle embedded in the Shannon mandate is that the international community will not permit a single state or a small group of states to define in advance the parameters of multilateral negotiations on a particular issue.

Of course, all non-nuclear weapon states that are party to the NPT are already prohibited from producing or possessing fissile material for weapons purposes, so a FMCT/FMT would in effect universalize that ban. As of now, only eight states are not legally prohibited from producing fissile materials for weapons purposes: the five acknowledged nuclear weapon states (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States), and the three states that have never signed the NPT (India, Israel, Pakistan). North Korea, the only other state that is currently known to possess fissile materials for weapons purposes, has withdrawn from the NPT, but because it was in violation of the Treaty when it withdrew, most states argue that it is still bound by the provisions of the NPT).

Of course, Iran is suspected, or at least has not given sufficient verifiable assurances to the contrary, of intending to produce fissile materials for weapons purposes, and the issue remains before both the UN Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

To say that the negotiations will be long and arduous is obviously an understatement, but at the same time the five official nuclear weapon states and the three non-NPT states with nuclear weapons all have persuasive reasons for joining the negotiations.[v] The US and Russia, as well as the UK and France, have large stocks of materials on hand and so have no reason to resist a ban on future production, and they would clearly welcome a Treaty that would cap production in China, as well as in North Korea, India, Israel, and Pakistan. They, of course, are rather less inclined to support an agreement that would place controls over their existing stocks.

China has suspended production and supports a permanent and collective ban on further production, and it would of course welcome a cap on Indian production. India, on the other hand, which would welcome a cap on Pakistani production, is confident that it will be able to build up its own stocks during the time it takes to negotiate a production ban.

India has already signaled that it will resist efforts to place controls over existing stocks – it wants a “cut-off” treaty. Pakistan, however, wants the Treaty to cover stocks as well. Pakistan is pretty much resigned to asymmetry with India on nuclear arsenals, but it will still look to the Treaty to keep the imbalance within some limits.

Israel probably feels it has little to gain from such a Treaty, although a simple ban on future production would probably be acceptable. Other states in the Middle East, however, are unlikely to find it acceptable to support a Treaty that bans only future production and thus implicitly accepts, even blesses, Israel’s existing stocks.

For the rest of the world, at a minimum a fissile materials treaty, whatever its final shape and scope, will:

-reinforce the ban on fissile material production that already applies to non-nuclear weapon states within the NPT,

-prevent the expansion of nascent arsenals, such as that of North Korea,

-limit the development of arsenals in states like India, Israel, and Pakistan, and

-extend safeguards and inspection arrangements to key nuclear facilities in all states with nuclear weapons.

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[i] Lauren Barbour, Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty: A Chronology, Institute for Science and International Security,

[ii] A brief review of the tortuous process that has finally led to the decision to begin negotiations is also provided in what is probably the very best available background material on fissile materials, and that is the work of the International Panel on Fissile Materials. Its 2008 report, the third annual, is focused on the “Scope and Verification of a Fissile Materials (Cutoff) Treaty.” Global Fissile Material Report 2008: Scope and Verification of a Fissile Material (Cutoff) Treaty, Third Annual Report of the International Panel on Fissile Materials.

[iii] Initiative of the Ambassadors Dembri, Lint, Reyes, Salander andVega. Proposal of a Programme of Work revised at the 932nd plenary meeting on Thursday, 26 June 2003. CD/1693/Rev.1, 5 September 2003.

[iv] Report of Ambassador Gerald E. Shannon of Canada on Consultations on the Most Appropriate Arrangement to Negotiate a Treaty Banning the Production of Fissile Material for Nuclear Weapons or Other Nuclear Explosive Devices. CD/1299, 24 March 1995. Available at

[v] Jenni Rissanen, “Time for a Fissban – or Farewell?”, Disarmament Diplomacy, Winter 2006, p. 16.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.