Global Fissile Material Stockpiles Limelighting South Asia

To ascribe a ballpark figure to the Indian and Pakistani nuclear inventories has become a matter of predicament since the aftermath of the 1998 nuclear tests. Especially stockpiles of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and separated weapons-grade plutonium of both countries are under apprehension since then. Fissile materials are the key ingredients to formulate a nuclear weapon. Access to these estimates provides a direct indication of countries’ nuclear stockpiles along with their capability of developing nuclear warheads. Therefore, the matter is always maintained as highly classified.

Stockpiles of both civil and military fissile materials have to be taken into account. The International Panel on Fissile Material has been compiling information regularly largely on global stocks of fissile materials. According to SIPRI, global stocks as of 2014 include highly enriched uranium at 1,345 tonnes, wherein the separated plutonium divided into military stocks and civilian stocks separately are 223 and 270 tonnes, respectively.

Generally, discussing materials that can sustain an explosive fission chain reaction are essential for all types of nuclear explosives, from first-generation fission weapons to advanced thermonuclear weapons. As already narrated, the most familiar of these fissile materials are HEU and plutonium.  For that reason, the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, and China have produced both plutonium and HEU in order to fulfill their nuclear weapons demands.

Contrary to de facto nuclear powers, Pakistan has been using HEU mainly for its nuclear program whereas India, North Korea, and Israel have been relying mainly on plutonium for their nuclear programs. As a matter of fact, all the states pursuing civil nuclear industry have minimal capabilities (owing to their enrichment and reprocessing plants) to divert fissile material for military purpose or its weapons-graded programs. But India for instance, already has large amounts of reactor grade plutonium, enough to manufacture up to 350 plutonium-based warheads (as of 2010).

Besides, the reactors granted to India in the India–U.S. nuclear deal support more than just its civil nuclear industry. Few of these are said to be under safeguards, but the rest of the ones that are already in operational condition are questionable. This is in view of the fact that India has been asked to halt the production of fissile material for its weapons development program by working mutually with the United States to the conclusion of the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT). This was a pre-requisite condition in the India – U.S. nuclear deal, but regretfully the condition was unable to be met. So it could be inferred that India would employ the fissile material obtained from its already installed reactors for military purposes, which are not under safeguards. Also according to calculations by the RAND Corporation, “commercial reprocessing operations in France, Britain, Japan, and India are separating about 25,000 kg of plutonium per year from spent power reactor fuel.”  Further, this would ultimately be a proliferation concern as it could give birth to the vertical proliferation and up-gradation of weapons.

Today, India is the world’s largest arms importer. According to The Express Tribune, “the Indian defense budget is set to hit a record high of $40bn, whereas Pakistan’s budget is just $6.002bn.”  Between 2005-2009 and 2010-14, India’s imports increased by 140 percent. In 2010-14 according to SIPRI, India’s imports were three times larger than those of either of its regional rivals – China and Pakistan. Although it is unaffordable for Pakistan to erect sufficiency level with Indian conventional capabilities, the endeavor is just to maintain an equilibrium vis-à-vis the central dilemma with Pakistan’s deterrence posture that does not allow it to halt expansion. Ironically, if a state knows the limit of its threshold, only then can it halt the expansion of its nuclear arsenals or more precisely, beyond which a state does not need to expand its nuclear arsenal. Consequently, it is Pakistan’s response to India’s major arms build-up and expansion and modernization of its capabilities, both qualitatively and quantitatively.  It is necessary to clarify the misconception regarding Pakistan’s position amongst the other nuclear states. Pakistan’s former ambassador to the UN, Munir Akram, very appropriately said, “Pakistan is not the fastest growing nuclear arsenal. In fact, with the revival of their Cold War post the Ukraine crisis, the United States and Russia have deployed the largest number of additional nuclear weapons last year.”

Pakistan has approximately 120 nuclear warheads – HEU for 100 and plutonium for 20 warheads. India has approximately 110, with weapons grade plutonium for more than 100. India’s HEU stock is believed to be for naval purposes. New Delhi has approximately 520 kilograms of plutonium available for nuclear weapons – enough for 100 to 130 warheads – and up to another 11.5 metric tons of reactor grade plutonium in spent fuel, which could be reprocessed for developing bombs. In regard to HEU, Pakistan and India has 2.7-3.0 and 2.4 metric tons, respectively. Also, the India – U.S. nuclear deal is of great benefit to India, since it has mammoth capacity to produce uranium that could be used for military purposes.

Akin, Kazakhstan signed a similar sort of nuclear accord with India recently that aims at supplying 5,000 tonnes of uranium over the next five years to India. Similar cooperation has been carried out with Japan, Australia, and Canada too. Hence, all of these nuclear deals show India’s eagerness of uranium acquirement. Accordingly, military fissile material production capabilities would nurture vertically, increasing global stockpiles of fissile material.


Image: IAEA, Flickr

Posted in , Fissile Material, India, Nuclear, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan

Beenish Altaf

Beenish Altaf

Beenish Altaf is working as a Research Associate at the Strategic Vision Institute, an Islamabad based think tank. Her areas of research are nuclear non-proliferation and strategic issues of South Asia. She has a masters degree in Defence and Diplomatic Studies from Fatima Jinnah Women University. Furthermore, she writes regularly for national and international dailies.

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3 thoughts on “Global Fissile Material Stockpiles Limelighting South Asia

  1. Efforts to negotiate direct limits on Indian nuclear forces are probably premature, so the United States and other countries have to constrain the fissile material racing indirectly, by limiting the amount of fissile material they manufacture.

  2. Well attempt in fulfilling meaning of its interesting title.
    Undoubtedly the on going nuclear deals in or the other way would surely nurture vertically. The race of acquiring HEU is not a good sign for the region and the global world as a whole.

  3. Beenish,

    I hope you are well.

    Strategic arms competitions are propelled not just by disputes, but by asymmetrical capabilities.

    During the Cold War, for example, the Soviet Union “outnumbered” the US in land-based missile-related capabilities, while the US enjoyed more capable bombers and missile-carrying submarines. Even though many observers believes that these advantages evened out, and that “essential equivalence” had been reached, there were always those who argued that one side or the other was advantaged, and that “more” needed to be done to “catch up.”

    On the subcontinent, there are also disputes and asymmetries — especially those relating to fissile material that can be used in warheads. Pakistan has enjoyed a wide advantage in HEU, but now India is catching up. (I agree with those who assess India’s HEU program as being connected to the new Arihant-class SSBN.)

    India has enjoyed a historical advantage in plutonium production, but Pakistan has caught up and is poised to produce more far plutonium than India, as Pakistan now has four plutonium production reactors, while India has only one in operation.

    India has a significant stockpile of reactor grade plutonium, as you note, but reactor grade plutonium contains many impurities and is not a reliable source of yield for nuclear weapons.

    India also has unsafeguarded nuclear power reactors under a very unwise provision of the US-India civil nuclear deal. These power plants could be used for bomb-making material, but to do so, Indian leaders would have to sacrifice electricity for nuclear weapons — just as Pakistan’s military has done by investing in four plutonium production reactors instead of electricity generating power plants. So far, India’s civilian leaders have not made the same decisions as Pakistan’s military leaders.

    India is also working on “breeder” reactors, which could greatly increase their stocks of plutonium. But so far, breeder reactors have a very poor track record.

    All of this is discussed in detail in the Stimson/Carnegie Endowment report on “A Normal Nuclear Pakistan,” which I encourage people to read. You can find it here:

    The bottom line is that Pakistan’s military leadership has set nuclear weapon requirements based on asymmetrical capabilities and concerns that India’s civilian leadership will take steps that, so far, it has been deeply reluctant to take.


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