The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has written to the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs to provide its views on a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT) in response to a resolution from the United Nations General Assembly aimed at breaking a deadlock in negotiations on such a Treaty.
Frustrated at the lack of progress at the Conference on Disarmament, which has been mandated to take forward discussions on the FMCT, the UN General Assembly last year voted to request the UN Secretary-General to establish a Government Group of Experts on the Treaty, with the intention of moving towards starting long-delayed negotiations on an FMCT.
Agreement of an FMCT is seen by many nations, including the UK, as the next step along a path towards preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The note from the FCO gives a hint as to the negotiating position that the UK might take in future discussions on the Treaty.
The UK states that it is committed to the pursuit of an FMCT and “wishes to immediately begin negotiation within the Conference on Disarmament” on the Treaty. Having such a Treaty in place would “be a significant step closer to our goal of a world without nuclear weapons”.
The UK government supports steps to establish an FMCT Group of Government Experts to help set out a technical framework to support the future Treaty, and “looks forward to participating” in the group, which it considers should consider the precise scope of the treaty and the materials it should control, verification arrangements, and operation of the Treaty.
Although the note states that UK government recognises that some states would like to see existing stocks of fissile materials covered by the FMCT in some way, it takes the position that “differences of opinion, and the technical complexity of the issue, would make it extremely difficult to reach agreement on the coverage of stocks under a FMCT that would be acceptable to all”. The UK produced large stocks of military fissile materials over the period 1950 – 1995, and has also acquired fissile materials from the USA under the terms of the 1958 US – UK Mutual Defence Agreement.
The FCO note states that there are “other approaches, including voluntary approaches” that it believes will be more appropriate for dealing with existing stocks of fissile materials, but does not explain how these approaches might work.
The FCO note also states that the UK “strongly believes” that a FMCT should only ban the production of new fissile material for use in nuclear weapons – and not the production of fissile material for civil purposes.
The government takes the view that the production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium should be banned under a FMCT, but is silent on the topic of tritium – a short lived radioactive isotope of hydrogen which is needed to ensure that thermonuclear warheads such as the UK's Trident warhead work as intended.