UN session seeks to kick-start ’sleeping conference’ and cut off nuclear bomb material

By Charles J. Hanley, AP
Friday, September 24, 2010

UN session seeks to kick-start stalled nuke talks

UNITED NATIONS — Moving quickly on a treaty to shut down all production of uranium and plutonium for atomic bombs is an “essential step” toward global nuclear disarmament, says a new coalition of nuclear-activist nations.

Negotiations for the long-proposed Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, blocked by Pakistan at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, should instead “be pursued with vigor and determination,” says the 10-nation group, led by Japan and Australia and including Germany, Canada and Mexico.

The 10 foreign ministers issued a blueprint for next steps in arms control on the eve of a unique, high-level meeting U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was convening here Friday in an effort to kick-start the Geneva talks — “the sleeping conference,” as Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Satoru Satoh called it.

The 65-nation, 31-year-old Conference on Disarmament, the world’s only multilateral forum for nuclear arms diplomacy, has not produced anything substantial since the 1996 nuclear test-ban treaty, a pact now on hold because key nations, including the U.S., have not ratified it.

A fissile-material treaty has been proposed since the 1990s, after decades in which nuclear-weapons powers accumulated hundreds of tons of plutonium and highly enriched uranium — sitting today in deployed or disused weapon warheads, in storage, in fuel stores for nuclear-power Russian icebreakers and U.S. missile submarines, in research reactors, and elsewhere.

Experts believe there’s enough material in the world for 160,000 bombs, increasingly worrying global authorities at a time when international terrorists talk of “going nuclear.”

The U.S. administration of President George W. Bush had opposed negotiating a cutoff pact, arguing that it would not be verifiable, since that would require an objectionably intrusive regime.

President Barack Obama reversed that stand after taking office last year, and the Geneva conference finally agreed on an agenda. Pakistan at first allowed the process to move forward, but this year it blocked further work, its privilege under conference rules requiring a consensus of all members.

Archrival India has a larger stock of fissile material than Pakistan does, and a greater capacity to build warheads. The Islamabad government consequently wants a treaty that doesn’t only cut off future production, but reduces current stocks of bomb material.

“It presents us with a clear and present danger,” Pakistan’s Geneva negotiator, Zamir Akram, said last January of the cutoff idea.

At the moment, only Pakistan and India — and possibly Israel and North Korea — produce fissile material for weapons. The U.S., Russia and other major nuclear powers have declared unilateral moratoriums on production.

As the year dragged on, some in Geneva, including the Americans and French, suggested that a negotiating process might have to be established outside the disarmament conference to work on a fissile material treaty. Anyone rejecting such talks would become more internationally isolated.

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