Addressing South Asia’s Fissile Material Conundrum

South Asia is witnessing a growing competition in conventional and nuclear capabilities. During the past two decades, India and Pakistan have added more than two dozen dual-capable delivery systems and are in the process of building out their respective nuclear triads. Of late, both countries are adding counterforce capabilities and platforms to their arsenals. They are also capable of adding multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) or MIRV-equipped ballistic missiles to supplement counterforce capabilities.

Fissile material production has remained a decades-old area of competition that will continue to be a key factor in determining the size, scope, and shape of Indian and Pakistani strategic force postures. The South Asian fissile material conundrum is too wide to capture by casting a single net. A push to start negotiations on banning production at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva has remained unsuccessful so far. Therefore, it might be useful to identify the underlying causes of this impasse.

Over the past few years, Pakistan has been reluctant to agree to participate in negotiations for a draft Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT), primarily because of the asymmetry in existing stockpiles with India, particularly plutonium (Pu). A lack of transparency on fissile material stockpiles in India is an additional key hurdle in moving forward. India’s civilian Pu that is outside the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is central to the problem, given that New Delhi has designated this material as a “strategic reserve.” The International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM) includes separated reactor-grade Pu in its estimates of India’s military Pu stocks. As of January 2017, India is estimated to have accumulated 6.58 tons. Experts like Mark Hibbs also agree that almost all participating governments in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) process would welcome transparency in Indian stockpiles. From a South Asian strategic stability perspective, India’s existing and growing unsafeguarded stockpiles of weapons-grade and weapons-usable fissile material stockpiles are likely to have a direct bearing on Pakistan’s calculus of how much it might need in terms of sufficiency, although Pakistani officials insist that the country is not aiming at nuclear parity with India.1

Pakistan has in the past proposed several bilateral initiatives to India for regional stability and arresting the perpetual action-reaction cycle that is characterized by enduring animosity and mistrust through the past seven decades. Pakistan called for establishing a nuclear-weapon-free zone in 1972 and 1974, as well as simultaneous adherence to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) prior to overt nuclearization, and has offered more recent proposals as part of a strategic restraint regime, such as cruise-missile-test notification and a legally binding bilateral moratorium on nuclear testing. Each one of these proposals has been rejected by the Indian side.2 Therefore, another way forward is through a multilateral framework such as the FMCT that could help to reduce the complex security dilemma in South Asia. In this context, however, it will be unrealistic to expect any unilateral measures or concessions by Pakistan that do not address its regional security concerns and growing asymmetries in capabilities.

The Proposal

I propose that all unsafeguarded civil fissile material stockpiles – of Pu and highly enriched uranium (HEU) – as well as production facilities designated as part of civilian nuclear energy programs in South Asia should be placed under IAEA safeguards and included in the scope of the proposed FMCT. Coupled with it, a clear and verifiable separation between civil nuclear-power-reactor and associated fuel-cycle facilities and military activities through the IAEA should be enforced.3

As civilian stockpiles of reactor-grade plutonium are weapons-usable and as HEU for naval reactors can be quickly enriched to weapons-grade levels, this proposal would serve to drastically reduce the quantity of fissile material available for potential weapons use. It would also enable the application of comprehensive safeguards on all dual-use nuclear plants, facilities, and materials that might be part of civilian nuclear energy programs, but are not presently covered by any oversight. The inclusion of these facilities and materials would also improve their international safety and security standards. Should such an initiative hold a prospect of realization, Pakistan would have no reason to remain outside the negotiations toward an FMCT, thereby strengthening the nuclear nonproliferation regime.

The Biggest Hurdles Working Against the Initiative

India’s unsafeguarded civilian fissile material stockpiles are declared to have been earmarked as fuel for its upcoming fleet of fast breeder reactors (FBRs), the first of which (a 500 MW prototype FBR) is yet to be commissioned after suffering an eight-year start-up delay.4 The FBRs – part of India’s three-stage nuclear energy program that have been kept outside safeguards under the IAEA separation plan – will be a ready source of an exponential increase in weapons- and reactor-grade Pu production when they are commissioned. This and India’s large-scale ongoing expansion of its enrichment, reprocessing, and Pu production infrastructure are also fueling Pakistan’s strategic anxieties and its threat calculus, which in turn are driving its operational and sufficiency requirements. Pakistan’s estimated existing stockpile of about 210-280 kg of weapons-grade Pu and 3.41 tons of weapons-grade HEU is barely sufficient to meet the warhead requirements of a credible deterrent comprising a triad-based arsenal of 11 types of ballistic and cruise missiles (including short-range systems like the Nasr).

A second hurdle is that Pakistan lacks an excess stock of fissile material. Pakistan was a late starter in Pu production as a result of bureaucratic choices made four decades ago. Pakistan began work on its first 50 MW (thermal) production reactor in 1986; it was commissioned after 11 years. It has added three small 50 MW Pu production reactors since 1998, with the third and fourth reactors going online as recently as 2011 and 2014.5

It is therefore reasonable to assume that Pakistan would want to utilize these reactors to produce an additional stock of Pu that meets the existing and planned sufficiency requirements – first by narrowing the yawning gap with India and then by resulting in a small excess stockpile. This is important to lend credibility to Pakistan’s diplomatic stance of accounting for existing stockpiles of fissile material in the form of a Fissile Material Treaty (FMT) instead of an FMCT that only calls for a future cut-off of production. While the FMT is consistent with the Shannon Mandate governing the negotiations for an FMCT – and goes one step ahead of the FMCT in terms of advocating disarmament in addition to arms control – Pakistan’s FMT position is unlikely to secure any support among the weapon-states that already have large stockpiles and have stopped production decades ago. Pakistan’s FMT stance is therefore clearly aimed at addressing the asymmetry in existing stockpiles in South Asia (see table).

The lack of excess stocks of fissile material might be one reason why Pakistan’s representative to the CD highlighted concerns in the summer of 2014 regarding existing stocks of different weapons-usable nuclear materials: “We propose that this weaponized fissile material may not be touched by the treaty, and be dealt with in the future Convention on Nuclear Disarmament.” He further argued that nonweaponized fissile material – including that which has been set aside either for new warheads or for the replacement and refurbishment of existing warheads, in addition to civil Pu from any unsafeguarded reactor and HEU for naval propulsion – should be accounted for and brought under the ambit of safeguards of an FMCT. He also called for “mutual and balanced reductions” of such unsafeguarded civil stockpiles – past and future – of fissile material on a regional or global basis. This was followed by the submission of a working paper, “Elements of a Fissile Material Treaty,” at the CD in August 2015 that reiterated Pakistan’s earlier position.

Paradoxically, some argue that Pakistan’s position at the CD of advocating for the accounting of nonweaponized or excess stocks might prove to be counterproductive, given that India could easily use it to its advantage. India could declare one portion of its unsafeguarded fissile material stockpile open for accounting under an FMT and designate a part or all the remaining as weaponized. This could permanently freeze the weaponized asymmetry in India’s favor, where it would enjoy a huge advantage over Pakistan. Regardless of whether India chooses to adopt such a course or not, in the absence of a surplus Pakistani stockpile, any bilateral, regional, or multilateral reductions of unsafeguarded (civil) or military stockpiles of fissile material is a nonstarter for Pakistan.

A third challenge would be to ensure transparency and the verification of separation for civilian and military fuel-cycle and reactor operations in South Asia. Doing so would primarily rest on whether the IAEA would be able to monitor and verify the accuracy and completeness of such a separation. This would require that all civilian fuel-cycle facilities or power and research reactors or breeder reactors that are part of any civil energy program – and the materials produced therein – are placed under safeguards.

While Pakistan has all its research and power reactors – both existing and planned – under IAEA safeguards, India does not. In 2008, India was allowed by the IAEA, as part of the separation plan for the U.S.-India civil nuclear deal, to keep eight pressurized heavy water reactors (PHWRs, of 2,350 MWe) and its breeder reactors outside safeguards. India has announced plans for building six (600 MWe) FBRs by 2039 and 10 (700 MWe) PHWRs. Despite being part of the three-stage civil nuclear-energy program, these power and breeder reactors have clearly been kept out of the “military” list of plants and facilities, in line with the principles of separation that only allowed facilities to be designated as civilian if they were not in any way associated with India’s strategic program. This arrangement has generated three parallel and overlapping streams of reactor operations and fuel-cycle activities – civil (safeguarded), civil (unsafeguarded), and military (unsafeguarded).6

The IAEA can only certify an accurate and verifiable separation of civilian and military nuclear facilities if the 2008 India-IAEA safeguards agreement for India’s separation plan is renegotiated. As John Carlson has argued, the overlap in India’s civilian unsafeguarded and military nuclear facilities raises the possibility of diversion of materials under the existing IAEA safeguards, which would violate one of the conditions for membership of the NSG. Once a more effective safeguards agreement is in place, it would enable the IAEA to monitor and report on the transparency, completeness, and accuracy of its safeguards.

Pakistan has no such intersections of civilian facilities feeding into its weapons program. While it has a small unsafeguarded military nuclear fuel cycle dedicated to producing fissile material for nuclear weapons, in 2006, the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council approved a $1.2 billion plan to establish a “purely civilian” commercial-scale nuclear fuel cycle that would be placed under IAEA safeguards. It would include all front-end facilities – uranium processing, conversion, enrichment, and fuel fabrication – and would allow for the local production of pressurized water reactor fuels.7

In 2012, Pakistan’s Planning Commission confirmed that it was working on developing a Pakistan nuclear fuel complex/nuclear power fuel complex comprising a chemical processing plant, an enrichment plant, a seamless tube plant-1, a fuel fabrication plant, and a nuclear fuel testing plant, with an estimated cost of Rs. 51.298 billion. Once complete, this would enable Pakistan to add a completely civilian fuel cycle – separate from its production reactors and military fuel cycle – to its already safeguarded research and power reactors under the IAEA oversight.

A fourth hurdle is whether Pakistan and India would be willing to accept intrusive monitoring of their respective unsafeguarded civilian fissile material production facilities and stockpiles. While Pakistan has zero unsafeguarded civilian stocks of spent fuel or fissile material – as all its power and research reactors are under IAEA safeguards – this might be difficult for Indian decisionmakers to accept.

India is unlikely to agree either to a revision or amendment of its 2008 IAEA safeguards agreement for its civil-military nuclear separation plan. This is because its unsafeguarded civil nuclear materials (Pu and HEU) have been designated as a strategic reserve and as civil-production and fuel-cycle facilities, and heavy water power and breeder reactors outside safeguards are associated with its strategic program.

Why the Initiative Might Nonetheless Be Useful

It is now clearly in Pakistan’s national security interest to address the resultant disadvantages accruing from increased Indian fissile material production, its ability to use and process unsafeguarded stocks of civilian fissile material, and the “three overlapping and parallel streams of facilities.”

If, as a result, Pakistan shifts its position and rejoins negotiations at the CD, India would be placed on the defensive and is likely to overtly oppose these negotiations, getting Pakistan off the hook. But for this to happen, it is imperative that the discussion on civil stockpiles and facilities producing all unsafeguarded civilian nuclear materials be considered for inclusion in an FMCT. It would also be in India’s interest to undertake a clear separation of civilian and military nuclear facilities and operations. This would also favor India’s stalled bid for entry into the NSG.

Besides South Asia, this proposal is relevant to address nonproliferation concerns on the horizon emanating from East Asia that have a direct bearing on U.S. national security interests – both in terms of its alliance relationships in the region and preventing further proliferation. The encompassing of all types of weapons-usable civilian nuclear materials under the IAEA safeguards system is pivotal to the strengthening of global arms control and nonproliferation efforts. These objectives are particularly relevant in the 21st century given that civilian Pu stockpiles are likely to be among the next big proliferation concerns with the attendant risk of cascading nuclear proliferation in tension-prone regions such as East Asia.

Japan is a case in point, with the largest stockpiles of weapons-usable civil Pu second only to the United States. Japan is an NPT signatory, and a very large proportion of the IAEA annual budget is spent on monitoring and safeguards of Japanese stockpiles. Yet Japan’s plans to commission a large commercial reprocessing plant at Rokkasho have been, for a long time, fueling fears of South Korea following suit – and South Korea has to deal with nuclear saber-rattling from a belligerent and unpredictable North Korea on a regular basis. China, for its part, is deeply concerned about Japan’s plans for reprocessing. Beijing’s own large-scale commercial reprocessing plans are driven by the requirements of energy security.8

However, Japan and South Korea do not have any unsafeguarded spent fuel or civilian stockpiles, and China – recognized by the NPT as a nuclear weapon state – reportedly ended fissile material production for weapons long ago. Consequently, there is a prospect of a “nuclear explosive arms race in East Asia.” 9 Experts believe that 47 tons of Japan’s civil Pu stockpiles represent a direct proliferation concern, with about 11 metric tons of Pu on its soil and another 37 metric tons stored abroad – enough to make roughly 2,000 nuclear weapons.10

There are no transparency concerns with regard to Japan or South Korea. In contrast, India stands out as the only country that has the largest unsafeguarded weapons-usable civil Pu stockpile outside the NPT states. Therefore, Indian lack of transparency in unsafeguarded civil and military fissile material stockpiles leaves Pakistan worrying over what is sufficient for it to maintain the credibility of its deterrent. Thus, by addressing the issue of transparency in civil unsafeguarded fissile material stocks, the world could be nudging Pakistan to change its position at the CD.

Global nonproliferation norms can only be strengthened in the second nuclear age – witnessing a surge in vertical proliferation in South and East Asia – through a universal, nondiscriminatory, and uniformly applicable set of principles that do not create country-specific exceptions and concessions while expecting all others to adopt unilateral restraints.

Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a new Stimson Center book, Off Ramps from Confrontation in Southern Asia, and has been republished with permission. The book features pragmatic, novel approaches from rising talent and veteran analysts to reduce tensions resulting out of nuclear competition among India, Pakistan, and China. The full book is available for download here.

Image 1: Reetesh Chaurasia via Wikimedia

Image 2: Alex Halada via Getty

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  1. Mansoor Ahmed, “India’s Nuclear Exceptionalism” (discussion paper, Managing the Atom Project, Belfer Center, May 2017), 2, https://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/files/publication/India%27s%20Nuclear%20Exceptionalism.pdf; Kalman A. Robertson and John Carlson, “The Three Overlapping Streams of India’s Nuclear Power Programs” (discussion paper, Managing the Atom Project, Belfer Center, April 15, 2016), 7, https://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/legacy/files/thethreesoverlappingtreamsofindiasnuclearpowerprograms.pdf; and “Pakistan Doesn’t Want Nuclear Parity with India, Says Ex-Diplomat,” The Nation (Islamabad), April 20, 2017, http://nation.com.pk/20-Apr-2017/pakistan-doesn-t-want-nuclear-parity-with-india-says-ex-diplomat.
  2. “Pakistan Offers India Moratorium on Nuclear Tests,” The Express Tribune (Islamabad), August 17, 2016, https://tribune.com.pk/story/1164259/pakistan-offers-india-moratorium-nuclear-tests/; Mariana Baabar, “Cruise Missile Test: Pakistan Shows Concern as India Fails to Notify,” The News (Islamabad), November 17, 2017, https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/244792-cruise-missile-test-pakistan-shows-concern-as-india-fails-to-notify.
  3. In the South Asian context, civil Pu refers to Pu produced in power reactors that can either be under IAEA safeguards (as in Pakistan) or unsafeguarded while being part of a civilian nuclear power program, but still offer a latent breakout capability by being attached to the strategic program (as in India). The latter therefore poses a unique risk of vertical nuclear proliferation.
  4. Plan to Make 6 N-Reactors Operational by 2039,” Deccan Herald (New Delhi), November 5, 2017, http://www.deccanherald.com/content/641238/plan-make-6-n-reactors.html; “More Delays in India’s Breeder Reactor Program,” The Fissile Material Blog, November 26, 2017,
    http://fissilematerials.org/blog/2017/11/more_delays_in_indias_bre.html.
  5. David Albright and Serena Kelleher-Vergantini, “Pakistan’s Fourth Reactor at Khushab Now Appears Operational,” Institute for Science and International Security, January 16, 2015, http://isis-online.org/uploads/isis-reports/documents/Khushab_January_2015_reactor_four_operational_FINAL.pdf.
  6. Embassy of India, “Implementation of the India-United States Joint Statement of July 18, 2005: India’s Separation Plan,” Washington, DC, https://www.indianembassy.org/pdf/sepplan.pdf; and Kalman A. Robertson and John Carlson, “The Three Overlapping Streams of India’s Nuclear Power Programs.”
  7. “Nuclear Power in Pakistan,” World Nuclear Association (September 2017), http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/country-profiles/countries-o-s/pakistan.aspx.
  8. Hui Zhang, “China Worries about Japanese Plutonium Stocks,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 17, 2014, http://thebulletin.org/china-worries-about-japanese-plutonium-stocks7248; and Hui Zhang, “Plutonium Reprocessing, Breeder Reactors and Decades of Debate: A Chinese Response,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July 1, 2015, http://thebulletin.org/2015/july/plutonium-reprocessing-breeder-reactors-and-decades-debate-chinese-response8453.
  9. Henry Sokolski, “Can East Asia Avoid a Nuclear Explosive Materials Arms Race?,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 28, 2016, http://thebulletin.org/can-east-asia-avoid-nuclear-explosive-materials-arms-race9295.
  10. Ibid.
Posted in , Energy, Fissile Material, IAEA, India, Nuclear Safety, Nuclear Security, Pakistan

Mansoor Ahmed

Mansoor Ahmed

Dr. Mansoor Ahmed is a Lecturer in the Department of Defense and Strategic Studies (DSS), Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU), Islamabad. He holds a Ph.D in International Relations from QAU. He has also served as visiting faculty in the Department of Strategic and Nuclear Studies, National Defense University, Islamabad, from 2009-2010. He was a Visiting Research Scholar, Cooperative Monitoring Center, Sandia National Laboratories (August-December, 2013). His research interests include various aspects of Pakistan's nuclear program, primarily its evolution and technical development through several decades, and nuclear non-proliferation and arms control issues with special reference to South Asia. In the past two years, he has been engaged in different Track-II dialogues and initiatives related to arms control and nuclear issues in South Asia and has national and international publications to his credit.

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