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France's Nuclear Weapons

French Nuclear Facilities

Last changed 1 May 2001

Just as the old AEC once did on the United States, the CEA administers all nuclear activities in France. Military programs are controlled by the Military Application Division (Direction des Applications Militaires, or DAM), which was created on 12 September 1958. There are six DAM research centers (Centre d'Etudes) for the research, design, and development of warheads as well as their manufacture and assembly. The DAM is also responsible for the production of weapon grade nuclear materials.

Centre d'Etudes de Limeil-Valenton
Located in Villeneuvre-Sain-Georges, 15 km southeast of Paris, this is "France's Los Alamos" the central weapon design laboratory. The site is an ancient fortress that was appropriated for atomic weapons work on 3 September 1951. The first French nuclear device was assembled there, at Batterie de Limeil, and on 1 January 1960 it became Centre d'Etudes de Limeil. It expanded until it overran the commune of Valenton, and now comprises 12.5 hectares. It has a staff of about 950.

Centre d'Etudes de Valduc
This research center is "France's Pantex", the site were weapons are actually assembled and disassembled. It is near Is-sur-Tille on the Cote-d'Or, 25 km north of Dijon. It was established in 1958. In 1986 it employed over 1000 people. In addition to weapons manufacture, it processes waste products from weapons manufacture and conducts high pressure research on nuclear materials (e.g. plutonium). It is equipped with a high pressure gas gun for shock compression studies.

Centre d'Etudes du Ripault
Located in Mont-sur-Guesnes, in the Indre-et-Loire, 30 km south of Chinon, this center manufactures high explosives components (detonators, insensitive and liquid high explosives, etc.), performs stockpile maintenance functions, and has an accident response team. It was established in 1962 and now occupies 103 hectares. It has over 80,000 square meters of buildings and employs about 800 people.

Centre d'Etudes Scientifiques et Techniques d'Aquitaine (CESTA)
This research center is located in Le Barp in the Gironde, 30 km southwest of Bordeaux. It is France's equivalent of Sandia Laboratories - it performs militarization and production engineering functions for warhead designs developed by Limeil-Valenton. It was established in 1965 and occupies 700 hectares in the forest between Bordeaux and Arcachon.

Centre d'Etudes de Bruyeres-le-Chatel (CEB)
This research center is situated 35 km south of Paris, west of Arpajon in the Essone. It was established in 1957 and occupies 35 hectares. The Centre's activities include research on metallurgy, chemistry, electronics, seismology, toxicology, and the diagnostic measurement of nuclear explosions.

Centre d'Etudes de Vaujours-Moronvilliers
Located 17 km northwest of Paris at Vaujours in the Seine-Saint-Denis, this Centre was created in 1955. It performs explosive and high pressure research. It is equipped with shock tubes and high pressure light gas guns.

Pierrelatte
France's uranium enrichment plant, based on gaseous diffusion, was located near the village of Pierrelatte (Drome), on the Rhone river about 80 miles northeast of Marseille. The gaseous diffusion program began in 1953, and following a successful demonstration of a pilot plant at Saclay in 1958, approval for a full-scale plant was given. A diffusion barrier plant was built in 1960. In 1964 the first of four sections of the plant became operational, producing 2% enriched uranium. The next three sections reached full operation in late 1965, early 1966, and April 1967. when the fourth and last section became operational the plant became producing weapon grade uranium. The plant stopped producing highly enriched uranium in 1996. The last two sections were shut down in 1998, when the plant began to be dismantled.

Marcoule
The main facility for the production of plutonium for military purposes is the complex located at Marcoule, in the commune of Bagnols-sur-Ceze in the Gard. Founded in 1952, Marcoule was equipped with France's first plutonium production reactor, the natural uranium fueled, graphite moderated, gas-cooled G1 reactor, and its first plutonium separation plant, known as UP1. Plutonium production for weapons use ceased in 1992. Larger versions of the G1 known as G2 and G3, 250 MW each, were built in the mid-late fifties. These three reactors accounted for about half of France's total military plutonium production. Also located Marcoule are the 190 MW (thermal) Celestin I and II reactors, and the Phenix prototype breeder reactor. The Celestin reactors are heavy water designs fueled with plutonium (originally) and later with enriched uranium. These reactors have been used for civilian isotope, tritium, and military plutonium production. The 563 MW (thermal) Phenix was intended as a prototype for larger breeder power reactors, but its plutonium production appears to have been primarily for military purposes.

The G1 reactor went critical 7 January 1956, reached full power (40 MW thermal) September 1956, and was decommissioned October 1968. G1, and its larger sister reactors G2 and G3, were dual-purpose - producing both plutonium and electrical power. G2 and G3 were both 250 MW (the same size as the original Hanford reactors in the U.S.). G2 went critical July 1958, reached full power in March 1959, and was decommissioned February 1980. G3 went critical June 1959 and was decommissioned July 1984.

The first Celestin reactor went in to operation in May 1967, and the second in October 1968. Originally dedicated to radioisotope and tritium production, they began producing military plutonium by the mid-70s. Around the decommissioning of G2 it appears their function became primarily military plutonium production. Since 1991 they have been alternating operation, only one operating at any given time. Since military plutonium production was discontinued in France in 1992, presumably these reactors are now being used primarily for tritium production again. They are expected to remain in service at least until the end of the century. These reactors have the capacity to produce some 1.5 kg of tritium annually. In their current alternate operation mode they could be producing 750 g a year, an ample amount to maintain the current and planned French arsenal (which probably requires less than 200 g annually).

Phenix started operation in 1973 and is still in service. It could have produced up to 1400 kg of military plutonium by the end of 1997, but actual production is probably substantial less.

Construction on UP1 began July 1955 and the plant reached full operation in January 1958. UP1 employed the Purex solvent extraction process. By August 1984 it had reprocessed over 10,000 tonnes of gas-cooled reactor fuel and separated more than 2.5 tonnes of military plutonium. Production of plutonium halted at UP1 in 1992, and the dismantlement of the plant began in 1998.

La Hague
A second plutonium separation plant called UP2 was built at La Hague near Cherbourg in Normandy. UP2 started operation in 1966, and can handle 800 tonnes of spent fuel a year.

Other Reactor Sites
France does not separate its civilian and military weapons programs, and has produced substantial quantities of military plutonium from civilian power reactors. Among the reactors believed to have made substantial contributions to the military stockpile are Chinon-1, Chinon-2, Chinon-3, St. Laurent-1, St. Laurent-2, and Bugey-1. The amount is highly uncertain, ranging from 500 kg to 2000 kg.

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