The Obameter

Seek treaty to control fissile materials


"Will lead a global effort to negotiate a verifiable treaty ending the production of fissile materials for weapons purposes."


Sources:

Obama on Homeland Security

Subjects: Foreign Policy, Nuclear

Updates:

Despite U.S. efforts, treaty remains stymied

Updated: Wednesday, November 21st, 2012 | By Louis Jacobson

The Obama administration has continued to pursue a treaty to curb fissile materials that can be used in nuclear weapons, but the world -- or most importantly, one key nation, Pakistan -- isn't going along.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, then-candidate Barack Obama promised to "lead a global effort to negotiate a verifiable treaty ending the production of fissile materials for weapons purposes."
   
Fissile materials -- mainly highly enriched uranium and plutonium isotopes -- are capable of sustaining the chemical reactions necessary to create a nuclear explosion. Banning the production of additional fissile materials wouldn't prevent states from developing additional weapons -- each of the five "official" nuclear powers (the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom and China) still has large stockpiles, even if they have stopped producing fissile materials. Meanwhile, the rogue nuclear nations of Pakistan, India, North Korea, Iran and possibly Israel all continue to produce bomb-making material, but their reserves are much smaller, making them unlikely candidates to join the treaty.
   
Still, a proposed agreement known as the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty would make it more difficult for nations to join the nuclear club.
   
As we noted in our previous update, the idea for an agreement on fissile materials has been around more more than half a century, but the process of actually designing a treaty began in the mid-1990s under the auspices of the United Nations' Conference on Disarmament. Obama has at least twice reiterated the need for a treaty, noting in a 2009 speech in Prague that the world needs a treaty that "verifiably ends the production of fissile materials intended for use in state nuclear weapons.”
   
The process that the 65 participating nations agreed to is based on consensus. Pakistan, by most accounts, is the biggest stumbling block.

"The main barrier to negotiations has been Pakistan's opposition, due to its concerns about India's superior fissile material and nuclear weapons stockpile,” said Kingston Reif, the director of nuclear non-proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

On Oct. 10, 2012, Rose Gottemoeller, the acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said in a speech at the United Nations General Assembly that the Conference on Disarmament "remains our preferred venue for negotiating” a fissile-materials treaty, "since it includes every major nuclear-capable state and operates by consensus, ensuring everyone's national security concerns are protected.”

Tacitly acknowledging the diplomatic gridlock, Gottemoeller added that "our patience on this issue is not infinite. ... We will work hard to convince others that commencement of negotiations is not something to fear.”

As we noted in our previous update, we recognize that the United States has been devoting significant attention to this issue. Still, after four years in office, the Obama administration has failed to break the deadlock and get the parties to begin hammering out a treaty. So we're moving this to Promise Broken.

Sources:

Rose Gottemoeller, remarks at the United Nations General Assembly, Oct. 10, 2012

Fissile Materials Working Group, "Seoul Nuclear Security Summit Delivers Modest Results" (news release), Mar. 27, 2012

Arend Meerburg and Frank N. von Hippel, "Complete Cutoff: Designing a Comprehensive Fissile Material Treaty," March 2009

Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation,fact sheet on the Fissile Materials Cutoff Treaty, accessed Aug. 10, 2011
   
E-mail interview with Kingston Reif, director of nuclear non-proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, Nov. 21, 2012

Other nations are blocking consensus needed to move forward

Updated: Thursday, August 11th, 2011 | By Louis Jacobson

During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to "lead a global effort to negotiate a verifiable treaty ending the production of fissile materials for weapons purposes."

The U.S. has indeed been working on this issue, but it"s a Sisyphean task

First, some background. Fissile materials -- mainly highly enriched uranium and plutonium isotopes -- are capable of sustaining the chemical reactions necessary to create a nuclear explosion. Banning the production of additional fissile materials wouldn't prevent states from developing additional weapons -- each of the five "official" nuclear powers (the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom and China) still has large stockpiles, even if they have stopped producing fissile materials. Meanwhile, the rogue nuclear nations of Pakistan, India, North Korea, Iran and possibly Israel all continue to produce bomb-making material, but their reserves are much smaller, making them unlikely candidates to join the treaty.

Still, a proposed agreement known as the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty would make it more difficult for nations to join the nuclear club.

The idea for an agreement on fissile materials has been around more more than half a century, but the process of actually designing a treaty began in the mid-1990s under the auspices of the United Nations" Conference on Disarmament. Obama has at least twice reiterated the need for a treaty, noting in a 2009 speech in Prague that the world needs a treaty that "verifiably ends the production of fissile materials intended for use in state nuclear weapons.”

The process that the 65 participating nations agreed to is based on consensus. Perhaps not surprisingly, getting all countries on board with a single approach has been a nearly impossible task, with Pakistan, by most accounts, the biggest stumbling block.

Pakistan argues that the treaty would lock in a nuclear advantage for its neighbor and rival, India. Pakistan"s opposition is one of the reasons, and likely the most important one, that progress on the treaty has been mostly stalled for two years.

For a while, there were signs that the U.S. government might try to advance the effort by shifting the debate outside the Conference on Disarmament. This would allow a smaller number of countries to hammer out an agreement. For instance, National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon said the administration"s "preference” is to negotiate the treaty within the Conference on Disarmament, "but it is becoming increasingly doubtful that the conference can achieve consensus to begin such negotiations."

However, in August 2011, the White House appeared to rule out that option. An unnamed "senior U.S. official” told Global Security Newswire that the administration strongly opposes efforts to move negotiations out of their present forum. "The senior official said that as a forum that makes decisions based on consensus, the Conference on Disarmament is the only appropriate venue for fissile material cutoff talks because any such ban must be global and comprehensive,” the publication reported.

We recognize that the United States has been devoting significant attention to this issue, but we also get the strong sense that, despite the U.S. efforts, progress on producing a treaty is at a near-standstill. If that changes, we"ll reevaluate the promise. But for now, we"re rating it Stalled.

Sources:

Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, fact sheet on the Fissile Materials Cutoff Treaty, accessed Aug. 10, 2011

United States Mission to Geneva, remarks ss prepared for delivery by National Security Advisor Tom Donilon at the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, March 29, 2011

Global Security Newswire, "U.S. Opposes Moving Nuclear Material Talks Out of Geneva: Senior Official,” Aug 4, 2011

New York Times, "Time for Plan B” (editorial), April 20, 2011

E-mail interview with Matthew Bunn, professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, July 20, 2011

Early action toward a treaty

Updated: Tuesday, January 5th, 2010 | By Kevin Robillard

As one of a slew of goals seeking greater international cooperation on arms control, Barack Obama promised during the campaign to "lead a global effort to negotiate a verifiable treaty ending the production of fissile materials for weapons purposes."

Fissile materials -- mainly highly enriched uranium and plutonium isotopes -- are capable of sustaining the chemical reactions necessary to create a nuclear explosion. Banning the production of additional fissile materials wouldn't prevent states from developing additional weapons - each of the five "official" nuclear powers (the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom and China) still has large stockpiles, even if they have stopped producing fissile materials. The rogue nuclear nations of Pakistan, India, North Korea, Iran and possibly Israel all continue to produce bombmaking material, but their reserves are much smaller, making them unlikely candidates to join the treaty.

Still, such a treaty would make it more difficult for nations to join the nuclear club, particularly if it has the strong verification measures Obama seeks.

Obama has taken initial steps toward fulfilling the promise. In a speech in Prague this April, Obama called for a nuclear weapon-free world. And to get started on that goal, he said he'll push for what has generally been called the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty.

"And 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. That's the first step," Obama said.

Some progress has been made. In 2009, the 65-nation Conference on Disarmament agreed for the first time in a decade on an agenda for disarmament, including the creation of a working group solely dedicated to discussing a ban on new weapon-making materials. But key nations -- including China, India, Pakistan and Israel -- have reservations about the treaty, and crafting a global agreement will be difficult.

Still, Obama has advanced the idea and he'll have opportunities to pursue it in 2010, with the White House hosting a Global Nuclear Security Summit in March and the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference beginning in New York this spring. For us, that's enough to rate this promise In The Works.

Sources:

The White House, Remarks By President Obama in Prague As Delivered , April 5, 2009

Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, Factsheet on the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty , July 15, 2009

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