Fissile Materials Must Be Controlled

On September 14, 2017, the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC) hosted a panel with Japanese officials regarding the 47 metric tons of plutonium the Japanese government has stockpiled in the country. One of the panelists, a former US nuclear weapons designer, explained how, contrary to claims by the Japanese nuclear industry, this “civilian” plutonium (Pu-240) is usable in a nuclear bomb. (Pu-239 is the standard plutonium isotope used in nuclear weapons.) The presence of the fifth-largest stockpile of fissile materials on the planet is unique for a non-nuclear nation, and carries with it the potential to further destabilize a fragile East Asia.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Far from just a regional issue, fissile material stockpiles are a global nuclear security risk. Unlike orphaned sources, large fissile materials stockpiles are a problem because of the risk of theft and because of the potential weapons production represented by the stockpile. Only ten kilograms of plutonium are necessary to fuel a nuclear weapon. This means that the Japanese stockpile alone could fuel 4,700 atomic bombs (1 metric ton = 1,000 kilograms). In order to prevent these fissile materials from being stockpiled unnecessarily, the proposed fissile material cut-off treaty (FMCT) must be enacted and adopted.

The FMCT was first discussed in the early 1990s, in the wake of the end of the Cold War. United Nations resolution 78/57 L, passed in 1993, called for a treaty banning the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons. Efforts by both the Bush and Obama administrations to create the FMCT have not resulted in the treaty, but the major groundwork has been laid. All five permanent members (P5) of the United Nations Security Council have ceased production of fissile materials, and fissile materials have been successfully removed from vulnerable sites around the world.

The Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee has become responsible for retrieving fissile materials from insecure locations and storing them in their storage bunker. The first retrieval operation was conducted in 1994 in Kazakhstan, and since then Y-12 teams have retrieved materials from Georgia, Argentina, South Korea, Chile, and Mexico. These operations are the best way to secure fissile materials and prevent them from becoming orphaned sources. In the absence of the FMCT, retrieval programs and multilateral shutdowns are good signs of progress.

Unfortunately, there are still significant obstacles in the way of the FMCT and fissile material security in general. While the P5 have ceased production of fissile materials, continued production in India, Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea means that as fissile materials are being secured or destroyed, more are being created. Furthermore, while the P5 may have ceased production, the United States and Russia in particular are no longer destroying their surpluses of fissile materials at the same rate they were in the 1990s. This is due in part to rising political tensions and the collapse of the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA), and partly due to the rising costs of getting rid of the plutonium.

Under the PMDA, the United States was to turn its excess plutonium into Mixed-Oxide, or MOX, fuel and injected into active nuclear reactors. This would render the plutonium non-usable for weapons. Massive cost overruns at the Savannah River Site have led to Department of Energy officials to search for other, more cost-effective disposal methods. Unfortunately, Russia has not agreed to allow the United States to change the method of plutonium disposal, leading to increased tensions and a slow-down in the disposal of excess fissile materials.

At the moment, there is no global treaty to govern the stockpiles of fissile materials present around the world. These stockpiles pose a grave threat to global security through their continued existence. Whether due to the potential for theft or the political destabilization of a region, these stockpiles need to be disposed of or stored in a secure facility and controlled. As a mechanism for controlling and regulating fissile materials, the FMCT must be implemented.


John Ashley is the Nuclear Security Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). John received a Master of International Policy from the University of Georgia, where he concentrated in CBRN nonproliferation and international security.

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