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Fissile Materials

Towards universal, comprehensive and transparent accountancy, safeguarding and disposition of military and civilian fissile materials.

This paper addresses fissile materials.  This is a complex issue and among NGOs, as among Governments, there are some significant areas of disagreement.  It is widely accepted that the control of fissile materials plays an important role in the transformation of the non-proliferation regime into a nuclear-weapon-free world regime. The crucial question is how a reduction of unsafeguarded stockpiles of fissile material can be managed in a way that a nuclear-weapon state or a nuclear threshold state can move towards becoming a non-nuclear- weapon state. For

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declared nuclear-weapon states this transformation will be linked to the destruction of the last remaining nuclear weapons. A clear method for the undeclared nuclear states to join the cut-off and disarmament process needs to be worked out.  One component of this would be for them to reduce the upper limit of their stocks of nuclear-weapon-usable materials while the recognised nuclear-weapon-states further reduce their nuclear arsenals. The last step would involve placing all remaining stocks of fissile material in all countries under international safeguards.

Banning the production of fissile materials for weapons: an NPT pledge

At the first NPT PrepCom in New York in 1997 it was proposed that special time should be reserved in the NPT review process to discuss the cut-off issue. In this short statement we would like to focus on  what delegates might consider during this specially reserved time. It should be kept in mind that the participation of the undeclared nuclear states, which are not Parties to the Treaty, is central to this discussion.

Progress towards a cut-off agreement at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) is currently deadlocked. One important reason for this is that insufficient connection has been made between a cut-off treaty and progress on disarmament, which includes the asymmetry of existing stockpiles. There are two broadly different perspectives for how to make progress, though with some cross-overs.  Some NGOs consider that a cut-off agreement should be  one of the very next steps towards non-proliferation and disarmament and that negotiations should commence as soon as possible on the basis of the mandate agreed by the CD in March 1995.  Others hold that without specific disarmament steps on the part of nuclear weapon states a cut-off agreement would simply reinforce existing disparities. Both perspectives offer constructive ways to move forward, which we will try to represent in turn.

i) The first view: getting the FMCT underway The first view considers that most of the nuclear weapon and threshold states will not be prepared to allow a cut-off treaty to reduce their existing military stocks.  In recognising such problematic realities, incremental steps at other fora could be considered, enabling progress in parallel with the FMCT negotiations.  The main purpose of these incremental steps would be to reinforce the moratoria of countries that have ceased production, to increase transparency, and to increase pressure on countries that continue production for nuclear weapons.  Last and not least, the nuclear weapon states need to demonstrate in this process their commitment to take real steps towards nuclear disarmament, such as the de-alerting of nuclear forces, some kind of tritium control, establishment of an ad hoc scientific group to consider the technical aspects of nuclear disarmament, and a disarmament discussion process at the CD.

It might, however, be possible for the nuclear weapon states to discuss a declaration of stockpiles or a commitment to minimise non-military stockpiles outside of safeguards.  All civilian fissile materials and military material declared excess to weapons requirements should be placed under IAEA safeguards.  Other steps in this preliminary process could be:

* There should be a full and accurate accounting of the location, amount and form of all fissile materials in each country, without exception.  This will reduce the danger of withdrawal of materials at a later stage.  Some advocate that imposing criminal penalties on national leaders for failure to fully account for fissile materials would aid complete declarations. Others believe that this would be impractical and imprudent.

* Verification can follow upon declarations and does not need to be simultaneous with it.  Safeguards can be gradually introduced while non-intrusive methods are used to verify stocks outside of safeguards. When an inventory becomes subject to international safeguards the prior declarations can be checked by undertaking a full physical inventory measurement and by applying the methods of nuclear archaeology.

* All military materials production facilities, whether currently active or not,  should be shut down and dismantled.  The dismantlement of facilities should probably follow agreements on transparency and verification.  This is because the facilities contain physical evidence of total production.

* At this interim stage, special arrangements may need to be negotiated if some countries want stand-by or even new tritium production capacity. Verification arrangements would need to be agreed for such facilities.

ii) FMCT linked to nuclear disarmament The second school argues that a cut-off agreement should only have a significant impact on nuclear disarmament and the nuclear weapon states should undertake the following steps as part of the process:

a) each NPT nuclear weapon state to unilaterally formalise its existing freeze on fissile material production for nuclear weapons and make a full and accurate accounting of the locations, forms and amounts of fissile materials;

b)all military materials production facilities to be shut down and dismantled;

c) a ban on production of nuclear pits;

d) the excess stocks of weapon-usable materials to be placed under international safeguards;

e) a ban on tritium production.

With these commitments on the part of the nuclear weapon states a meaningful coupling of the non-proliferation and disarmament aspects of a fissile materials ban could be achieved.

Dealing with plutonium and HEU stocks

International transparency for plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU) inventories is critical for achieving a successful non-proliferation regime.  The guidelines on plutonium management that were agreed by nine countries in late 1997 constitute a modest step in that direction though several issues have not been resolved satisfactorily. A special problem is that  annual plutonium balances are required only to within 100 kg accuracy.  This leaves a lot of room for potential diversion. International transparency must be complemented by national materials management strategies.

The risk of fissile material should be thought of not simply as arising from material produced for weapons purposes, but extend to a broader category of weapons-usable materials, which includes almost all plutonium  Stocks of unirradiated plutonium should be minimised. One immediate step is to put a moratorium on the reprocessing of spent fuel at least as long as separated plutonium is still available for commercial purposes. From the non-proliferation point of view it is desirable to ban civilian reprocessing. Economic and ecological arguments already speak against the use of plutonium for fresh fuel.

Safeguarding of plutonium at bulk-handling facilities can never be perfect. Besides proliferation risks posed by state actors there is always a terrorist threat. This applies even to plutonium in unirradiated MOX fuel. Reactor-grade plutonium can be used for nuclear weapons and may even be of advantage for designing a crude nuclear weapon because no external neutron source is required to start the chain reaction due to the enhanced neutron background of plutonium-240 and higher isotopes.

Stocks of HEU - both military and civilian - should be reduced to the lowest levels practical, and civilian use of HEU should be eliminated. Nuclear-weapon states should put excess HEU under safeguards. The blending down to low enriched uranium needs to be accelerated and carried out under verified conditions.

How can plutonium be disposed of? As a first step, the metal pits can be made unusable, e.g. by squeezing them out of shape and transforming them into oxide. The plutonium can then be militarily guarded and stored to the same standards of security that are desirable for nuclear weapons.  A further step recommended by many NGOs is to immobilise plutonium into non-weapon-usable form, for example in glass or ceramic, mixed with radioactive waste.

Some NGOs also believe that irradiating plutonium as a mixed oxide (MOX) nuclear reactor fuel would be an acceptable option for putting plutonium into non weapons useable form.  However, very few NGO representatives accept this MOX strategy.  One argument put forth in favour of reactor irradiation is that it downgrades its isotopic composition.  But this degraded form of plutonium can still be used for making nuclear weapons.  Finally, an approach to transmuting plutonium without simultaneous power generation has also been advocated by some.  This presents great research challenges especially if it is to be accomplished efficiently and without the use of existing or new reprocessing technologies.

Mr. Chairman, distinguished delegates, you can see that our debates reflect the difficulties of actually controlling weapons useable materials in a practical and equitable fashion.  But we are all convinced that doing so will ultimately be required for achieving lasting non-proliferation and disarmament.

Statement Coordinator: Martin Kalinowski, IANUS, Hochschulstr. 10,  64289 Darmstadt, Germany Tel: + 49 6151 163016 Fax+ 49 6151 166039 email: kalinowski@hrzpub.tu-darmstadt.de