CD debates fissile materials

Beatrice Fihn | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF

The Conference on Disarmament (CD) met on Thursday 31 May, where Ambassador Kahiluoto of Finland took over the Presidency. The plenary meeting focused on the topic of a fissile material cut-off treaty (FMCT) and statements were delivered by the CD President, Pakistan, the United States, Canada, the European Union (EU), Japan, Germany, Spain, United Kingdom, Slovakia, Poland, France, Brazil, Russia, the Netherlands, Turkey, Syria, India, Australia, Switzerland, China, Iran, Republic of Korea, and Kazakhstan.

Procedural issues

CD President, Ambassador Kahiluoto of Finland announced that he has requested that the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) assist him during the thematic debates by presenting short factual presentations at the beginning of each plenary meeting on the topic to be discussed. However, he declared that this request “will require some further consultation” and therefore UNIDIR was not able to present its contribution to this plenary meeting on FMCT. Instead, Ambassador Kahiluoto read out the UNIDIR presentation himself.

Working in CD?

The Ambassador of Poland noted that the rules of procedure could allow for FMCT negotiations in plenary, without a programme of work, and suggested that member states should avoid finding another excuse to get stuck in the current stalemate.

Ambassador Adamson of the UK noted that continued failure to progress on negotiations in the CD could lead to some states seeking progress outside, but argued that such initiative would not solve the difficulties of an FMCT. Both delegations of Slovakia and the Netherlands indicated that alternative processes might be considered. Mr. Vasiliev of the Russian delegation and Ambassador Haitao of China believed the CD to be the only possible body in which to conduct these negotiations and argued that
 any parallel initiatives would reduce the value of the treaty as it would not be universal.

Ambassador Catalina of Spain reminded delegations that last year it had introduced CD/1910 on behalf of eight states that summarized points they believed should be included in an FMCT. He stated that the document had been received by a “deadly silence” and argued that such lack of response gave reasons to doubt whether it should continue to contribute to discussions in the CD or not.

General objectives of an FMCT

All speakers declared support for the start of negotiations of an FMCT, except the delegations of Syria and Iran. The Syrian delegation stated it did not agree that this was the issue ready for negotiations and argued that nuclear disarmament should be negotiated instead. Also the Iranian representative, Mr. Daryaei, supported the immediate negotiations of an NWC instead of an FMCT, as such a treaty would also include a ban on the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons purposes.

Ambassador Guerreiro of Brazil argued that an FMCT should never be an end goal in itself, and negotiations of such a treaty must immediately and automatically be followed by the negotiations of a Nuclear Weapons Convention (NWC). Mr. Wilson of Australia reiterated that once an FMCT was concluded and entered into force, “the work to achieve a world without nuclear weapons will continue.”

French Ambassador Simon-Michel argued that the central issues of an FMCT, scope, definitions, verification, and financial constraints, all needed to be tackled in a realistic manner, as they were sensitive in both economic and military senses.

The delegation of Turkey called on all nuclear weapon states to declare and uphold a moratorium on the production of fissile material in order to ensure a good start for the negotiations.


The delegations of Poland, the EU, Australia, the Netherlands, Russia, China, and Canada supported negotiations based on the Shannon mandate. While supporting this mandate, Canada, however, stated it “was not wedded” to it and could consider other proposals, while the Netherlands believed that a “flexible or phased approach”, as proposed by Brazil in 2010, could also be an option.


The delegations of the US and Slovakia argued that existing IAEA definitions should be used for the FMCT, such as the definition of “direct use material”. Also the Japanese Ambassador suggested that the definition of fissile material from Article XX of the IAEA statute should be used.

In addition, the US argued that definition of production should correspond with the IAEA’s definition of unirradiated direct use material, which captures the processes by which material directly usable in weapons is created.


Both the delegations of the US and Japan argued that non-nuclear weapon states of the NPT that have concluded and implemented a Comprehensive Safeguard Agreement and Additional Protocol should not need any additional verification requirements. Ambassador Hoffmann of Germany argued that those NNWS that already have a CSA and AP in place should logically support a similar verification mechanism for the FMCT. The Brazilian Ambassador noted that under the CSA, the IAEA verifies that NNWS do not produce fissile material for use in nuclear weapons, and argued that a future FMCT should adopt the same verification approach with regard to NWS. Ambassado Fasel of Switzerland argued that a a strong verification system would also guarantee efficiency in safety and security of nuclear materials


Ambassador Kennedy of the US reiterated her position that FMCT obligations should only cover the new production of fissile materials and argued that existing stockpiles should be dealt with separately, through other agreements or voluntary measures. She concluded “attempting to address stocks multilaterally, and linking them to a cutoff of new production, will only complicate efforts”.

The delegations of Germany, Iran, Brazil, and Switzerland disagreed. Ambassador Hoffmann of Germany noted that some inclusion of stocks “at least into the broader framework of an agreement” was needed, because without some level of transparency of existing stocks, a viable verification system would be difficult to achieve. The Brazilian delegation noted that considering the enormous stockpiles of nuclear weapons, a treaty that didn’t include existing stocks in its scope “would be like trying to empty an Olympic swimming pool using a thimble”. Ambassador Guerreiro further stated that while he was ready to negotiate an FMCT without preconditions, including existing stocks would be adamant for its scope.

Ambassador Fasel of Switzerland also noted the large stockpiles of fissile material and argued that existing stocks should not only be included to make a contribution to disarmament but also to prevent vertical proliferation of nuclear weapons. He further believed that the approach adopted with regard to existing stockpiles would be the best way to measure the real will of all states holding nuclear weapons to make progress towards disarmament.

Ambassador Amano of Japan believed it non-productive to carry out discussions on whether existing stocks should or shouldn’t be included, but wanted to focus on what specific obligations would be envisaged in regard to existing stocks. He further argued that the transfer of existing stocks to a third country, the diversion of existing stocks to conventional military use, and the “reversion” of stocks declared as excess back to nuclear weapon use should be banned. Also the Dutch Ambassador believed that an FMCT should include a ban on transfers, acquisitions and on related assistance activities.

Side event on FMCT

The delegations of the US, Poland, Japan, the EU, the UK, Slovakia, Australia, India, France, and Switzerland welcomed the Scientific Experts meeting on the FMCT initiated by the delegations of Germany and Netherlands and held on 29-30 May. Ambassador Hoffmann of Germany delivered some brief remarks on the topics of the discussion at the Scientific Experts meeting and reiterated that these meetings will not substitute for negotiations or even “pre-negotiations”. He also announced that he would present a more detailed report to the CD at a later date. The Chinese Ambassador noted that events such as the recent Scientific Expert’s meeting should not substitute for negotiations in the CD.

Next meeting

The next plenary meeting will be held on Tuesday, 5 June, at 10:00 in the Council Chamber where delegations will discuss the prevention of an arms race in outer space.