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Fissile material

chain reaction

Fissile materials are materials that can undergo the fission reaction. Fissile materials are the key component of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices. Those mostly used in nuclear weapons are highly enriched uranium (U-235 isotope of uranium) and plutonium (Pu-239 isotope of plutonium). According to the International Panel on Fissile Material, as of January 2017, the global stockpile of highly enriched uranium (HEU) is estimated to be about 1340 tons, and the global stockpile of separated plutonium is about 520 tons, of which about 290 tons is in civilian custody.

Against this background, it is widely recognized that a non-discriminatory, multilateral and internationally and effectively verifiable treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices will strengthen the nuclear non-proliferation regime and may represent a significant practical contribution to the nuclear disarmament efforts.

For many years now, the Conference on Disarmament (CD) has attempted to commence negotiation of such a treaty, usually referred to as a Fissile Materials Cut-off Treaty (FMCT). In particular, in 1995, the CD adopted the report (CD/1299) of the Special Coordinator, Ambassador Shannon of Canada, on the outcome of his consultations "on the most appropriate arrangement to negotiate a treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices". The report also contained a mandate for the establishment of an ad hoc committee on a “ban on the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices”. Substantive negotiations, however, never started in the CD.

In an attempt to overcome the political stalemate in the CD, several initiatives have also taken place in or outside the CD. In 2012, the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution 67/53 by which it requested the Secretary-General “to seek the views of Member States on a treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, including possible aspects thereof, and to submit a report on the subject to the General Assembly at its sixty-eighth session”. The resolution also established a group of governmental experts, which made recommendations on possible aspects that could contribute to but not negotiate a treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices on the basis of document CD/1299 and the mandate contained therein.

In 2016, the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 71/259 by which the Secretary-General was requested to establish a “high-level fissile material cut-off treaty (FMCT) expert preparatory group". The group is mandated to consider and make recommendations on substantial elements of a future non-discriminatory, multilateral and internationally and effectively verifiable treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, on the basis of CD/1299 and the mandate contained therein. The group will also examine the report of the Group of Governmental Experts with a view to making possible recommendations.

Specific projects aimed at supporting this process and increase the understanding and engagement of more UN Member States into an informal, open-ended consultative process, were also initiated by Canada and by the European Union.