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France's Nuclear Weapons

Origin of the Force de Frappe

We have made a successful start. When the [nuclear] tests are completed, An M.P. called Frank in Tahiti Said he felt that he just wasn't free: "If the French want to test, Then surely it's best If they blow up their bombs in Paree?"
Mayor Francis Sanford, French Polynesia's representative to the French National Assembly, Nov 1972.
We did tests to achieve a few technical goals. In the long term we know it's our national interest which is at stake.
Dominique Girard, French ambassador to Australia, 5 September 1995
La France a procede a un essai nucleare le 05.09 23H30 (heure de Paris) sue le site de Moruroa. L'energie degagee a cic inferieure a 20 kilotonnes. Cet essai destine a la misc au point de la simulation.
(France carried out a nuclear test on 05.09 at 2330 Paris time at the Moruroa site. The energy released was less than 20 kilotons. This test is intended to develop simulation.)

Last changed 24 December 2001

Although France had been a leading nation in research in nuclear physics before World War II, it lagged badly behind the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and even Canada, in the years immediately afterward. Progress had been slight under German occupation, and it was largely cut off from the rapid advances made during the war (in contrast Britain had been an active participant with the U.S. in much this research, and large quantities of material about it had been passed on to the Soviet Union).

A decree by the French provisional government, issued 18 October 1945 under the authority of President and General Charles de Gaulle, established the French Atomic Energy Commission (Commissariat a l'Energie Atomique, or CEA), making France the first nation to establish a civilian atomic energy authority. Like the U.S. AEC (established later), it had authority over all aspects of nuclear affairs - scientific, commercial, and military. Raoul Dautry was appointed Administrator-General and Frederic Joliot-Curie, France's preeminent nuclear scientist, was made High Commissioner. The site for the main nuclear research facility was selected at Saclay, south of Paris, but initial work began at a temporary site while the Saclay facility was constructed. The site selected was the old fortress of Fort de Chatillon on the outskirts of Paris. There France's first nuclear reactor, the heavy water/natural uranium oxide EL-1 or ZOE (Zero power, uranium Oxide fuel, and Eau lourde - or heavy water), was constructed. ZOE went critical 15 December 1948.

France had not been entirely excluded from the wartime work however. Dr. Bertrand Goldschmitt worked with the Anglo-Canadian team on the Manhattan Project in Montreal during the war, studying the behavior of plutonium in solvents. He continued this work after returning to France after the war, developing the first practical solvent extraction process for separating plutonium (solvent extraction quickly became the standard method throughout the world down to the present day).

During 1949 the CEA constructed a laboratory scale plutonium extraction facility (initially really just a plutonium chemistry research lab) at Le Bouchet that worked with irradiated fuel from ZOE. On 20 November 1949 the CEA announced that it had extracted its first milligram of plutonium as a pure salt. Le Bouchet extracted 10 mg by the end of 1950, and 100 mg by the end of 1951. By that time a sophisticated extraction process based on solvent extraction with tributyl phosphate, similar to the American Purex process, had been fully developed. A pilot industrial processing plant was subsequently built at Fontenay-aux-Roses where the first gram of plutonium was isolated from spent fuel rods from ZOE in 1954.

In 1952 a second reactor entered service, the EL-2 (or P-2) at Saclay. This was a heavy water moderated, natural uranium metal reactor, cooled by pressurized gas. Between 1954 and 1957 the Fontenay-aux-Roses pilot plant produced about 200 grams of plutonium from EL-2 fuel.

Although de Gaulle had been an enthusiastic supporter for acquiring atomic arms immediately after the war, in the latter forties interest languished. Part of the reason for this was the high profile of French communists who (in keeping with the internationalist line emanating from Moscow) opposed proliferation. In fact High Commissioner Joliot-Curie himself was an ardent communist, a fact that kept France frozen out of American, British, and Canadian nuclear activities.

In 1951 Joliot-Curie was dismissed as High Commissioner and replaced by Francis Perrin in April. In August Felix Gaillard was appointed Secretary of State for Atomic Energy (later to become Prime Minister and order France's first nuclear test). On 21 August Administrator-General Dautry died, and was replaced in November by Pierre Guillaumat. Under the leadership of these three men, a five-year plan for atomic energy was drawn up by the end of 1951. This plan, approved by the National assembly in July 1952, authorized the construction of industrial scale plutonium production facilities at Marcoule on the Rhone River - although without any discussion of the military implications of this program.

By this time large deposits of uranium had been discovered near Limoges, in central France, providing them with an unrestricted supply of nuclear fuel. The G-1 reactor at Marcoule, was a natural uranium, graphite moderated design, which could be constructed solely with France's own internal resources. G-1 went critical in 1956 at a power level of 38 MW (thermal) and was capable of producing 12 kg of plutonium a year (later increased to 42 MW by 1962). G-1 operated until 1968. Subsequently work began on a reprocessing plant at the same site, built by Saint-Gobain Techniques Nouvelles (SGN). Two larger reactors of similar design, G-2 and G-3, were completed in 1959 with operating powers of 200 MW each (later increased to 260 MW).

Official approval for developing nuclear weapons was not authorized until late 1954, even though by then the necessary plutonium production program was well advanced. Following the route of French forces at Dien Bien Phu, and the loss of then French Indochina, France's interest in nuclear weapons to bolster its national prestige took a sharp upswing. On 26 December 1954, Prime Minister Pierre Mendes-France met with his cabinet and authorized a program to develop an atomic bomb. On 28 December a new Bureau of General Studies (Bureau d'Etudes Generales) was created with General Albert Buchalet as head to pursue this option. In 1955 the Armed Forces Ministry (Ministre des Armees) began transferring funds in large amounts to this program.

The next blow to French morale, the humiliating Suez Crisis of October 1956, further intensified development efforts. The Crisis involved a joint British-French (and Israeli) invasion of Egypt. The U.S. vigorously opposed the invasion, and Britain's commitment to it quickly collapsed. These events acted to make France deeply suspicious of relying on allies for support, an attitude instrumental in France's later decision to abandon NATO's defense structure and develop its own independent nuclear deterrent. It is probably no coincidence that on 30 November 1956 the Ministre des Armees and the CEA signed a memorandum committing them to arrange a nuclear weapon test.

The most outspoken proponent of nuclear weapons in the military, Col. Charles Aillert, became a general in 1956 and on 10 June 1958 was put in charge of the Commandement Interarmees des Armes Speciales (CIAS or Special Weapons Command). On 11 April 1958 Felix Gaillard, the last Prime Minister of the Fourth Republic, signed an official order for the manufacture and testing of a nuclear device.

On 30 May 1958 Gen. Charles de Gaulle was charged with forming a new government and became President of the Council of Ministers the next day. The nuclear weapons program now had the enthusiastic backing of a forceful leader; and after his election as the first President of the French Republic, known as the Fifth Republic, on 21 December 1958 he now held a newly created powerful executive office. It was under de Gaulle's leadership that France's independent force de frappe (strike force) came into being.

In a Defence Council meeting on 17 June 1958 de Gaulle authorized a nuclear test to be held early the next year. The site chosen was the Reganne oasis 700 km south of Colomb Bechar in the Sahara Desert of Algeria; the operation was commanded by Gen Aillert. The first French nuclear test, code-named Gerboise Bleue, was detonated at 0704 GMT on 13 February 1960 at Reggane in Algeria (00.04 deg W, 26.19 deg N) atop a 105 m tower. This device, a prototype for the AN-11 warhead deployed three years later, used plutonium and had a notably high yield of 60-70 kt. No other nuclear power has ever detonated such a powerful device as its first test.

France continued to use the Reggane site for the next three atmospheric tests. The last of these, on 25 April 1961, was really a low yield "scuttle" of the test device to prevent it from falling into the hands of mutineers during the "Revolt of the Generals", set in motion three days earlier by General Maurice Challe. These atmospheric test brought severe condemnation from other African nations, so all subsequent tests in Algeria shifted to underground testing at In Ecker in the Hoggar of southern Algeria, about 150 km north of Tamanrassett. In Ecker is in the mountainous area of Tan Afela and was chosen for the availability of rock strata for testing. The facility created for testing there was called the Oasis Military Test Center.

Testing in Algeria continued until 16 February 1966, three and a half years after Algeria had gained independence. The test site was returned to Algerian control 15 January 1967. France's testing program then moved to the Mururoa and Fangataufa Atolls in the South Pacific.

Through the early sixties, France concentrated on fielding high yield pure fission designs intended as strategic weapons. A series of warheads (the AN-11 and AN-22 bombs, and the MR-31 missile warhead) had yields from 60 to 120 kt. These weapons all used plutonium as the only fissile material. The 120 kt yield probably represents a practical upper limit for pure fission plutonium weapons.

France began a program to develop ballistic missiles on 17 September 1959 with the creation of a special company called SEREB (the Society for Research and Development of Ballistic Engines). The technology had to be developed from scratch with the goal of building missiles for both land and sea basing with an intended range of 3500 km. The flight test center for the project, code-named "Precious Stones", was based in the Algerian Sahara.

On 26 November 1965 France launched its first satellite. The first ballistic missile to be developed - the SSBS S2 (Sol-Sol Balistique Strategique) IRBM (intermediate range ballistic missile) began testing in launches in October 1965. It was deployed on the Plateau d'Albion between Marseille and Lyon where 18 silos were built in two groups of 9. The missile force, armed with the 120 kt pure fission MR-31, finally went operational on 2 August 1971.

In 1965 a large gaseous-diffusion plant went into operation at Pierrelatte, initially producing only low enriched uranium. In 1967 the rest of the plant was completed and highly enriched uranium became available for weapons, the first HEU being delivered in April. Accordingly the next design tested and introduced (the MR-41) was a boosted fission design using HEU with a yield of 500 kt. Three tests were conducted between 7 July and 3 August with a combined yield of over 1000 kt, indicating both a high production rate and rapid incorporation into test devices.

In 1965 also a shift towards tactical weapons began. Lower yield pure fission designs for a tactical bomb (the 6-25 kt AN-52) and a battlefield missile warhead (the 10-25 kt AN-51 for the Pluton missile). These weapons entered the stockpile in 1972-73.

Sometime in the early sixties, an effort to develop thermonuclear weapons began. The man chosen to lead the project was a brilliant young physicist employed by the CEA named Roger Dautry. Little is known about this program, but it came to fruition in the Canopus test at 18:30 on 24 August 1968 over Fangataufa Atoll. In this test a 3 tonne device suspended at an altitude of 600 m from a balloon produced a yield of 2.6 megatons (and became the largest nuclear device France ever tested). The device used a lithium-6 deuteride secondary jacketed with highly enriched uranium and heavily contaminated the atoll, leaving it off limits to humans for six years.

In June 1962 the Coelacanthe Program was formed to coordinate the development of a nuclear ballistic submarine fleet among the CEA (for warheads and naval reactors), and the Defense Ministry's Directorates of Missiles (Direction des Engins, DEN) for ballistic missiles, and Naval Construction (Direction des Constrouctions Navales, DCN) for submarines. The French Strategic Oceanic Force (Force Oceanique Strategique, or FOST) was formed in 1967 to operate the fleet.

France's first class of strategic missile submarine (usually designated by SSBN, but called in France "sous-marins nucleaires d'Englins" or SNLEs) was the Redoubtable class of five SSBNs was deployed between 1972 and 1980. The lead ship of this class, the Redoubtable, was launched 29 March 1967, but did not enter operational service until 1972, when it began its first patrol on 28 January. These submarines originally carried 16 MSBS M1 SLBMs (later replaced by the M2 and then the M20 SLBM), armed with the 500 kt MR-41. France's first thermonuclear weapon, the 1 Mt TN-60, was finally deployed in 1976 atop the third generation of French SLBMs, the MSBS M20. The TN-60 was eventually replaced with a reduced weight TN-60, redesignated the TN-61.

Although five submarines were deployed, missiles were purchased to equip only four at a time. This reflects the fact that only four SLBMs are available for deployment at any given time, the fifth sub is undergoing servicing or overhaul. This practice of equipping only four subs at at time remains in force.

The seventies saw a number of modernization programs initiated.

In 1978 a fleet updating program began in which a new second-generation submarine sharing the same basic hull design as the Redoubtable class would be built but incorporating the latest technologies and carrying a new missile, the MSBS M4A, the first French missile to be armed with MIRV warheads (six 150 kt TN-70 thermonuclear weapons). This new submarine was named the L'Inflexible and was deployed 1 April 1985. Subsequently all of the Redoubtable class SLBMs were overhauled and refitted to the new standard set by L'Inflexible, with the exception of the Redoubtable itself, which was "paid off" (retired) in October 1991. Between October 1987 and February 1993 the other four refitted submarines were returned to service now redesignated as part of the L'Inflexible class.

The initial phase of development for the MSBS M4 started in 1978 when the submarine fleet updating program was authorized. Before the first production M4A was built (in 1984), a missile updating program for the M4 began in 1983. The MSBS M4B went into service in December 1987 armed with the new TN-71 warhead, a reduced weight and hardened version of the TN-70.

Development was initiated in 1972 on a second generation of IRBM, the SSBS S3. This missile replaced the S2 on a one-for-one basis. The S3 began service in June 1980 and was fully operational by January 1983, the same time an EMP hardening program began. By September 1984 all 18 missiles were hardened and designated the SSBS S3D (for durci, or hardened). The SSBS S3/S3D was armed with the same TN-61 thermonuclear warhead as the MSBS M20.

In the early 1970s interest developed in extending the ability of aircraft to deliver nuclear weapons by equipping them with a nuclear armed missile. Such a missile would permit the delivery of nuclear warheads against highly defended targets, extend the effective range of an aircraft, allow it to attack multiple targets more quickly, and allow older aircraft to remain useful in service longer. The ASMP (Air-Sol Moyenne Portee) program was launched in May 1978, and entered the French nuclear arsenal in May 1986. The ASMP was originally armed with the 300 kt thermonuclear TN-80, which was later replaced by the lighter TN-81 with the same yield.

The Mirage-IVP carried much of France's nuclear role in the air for 32 years with the AN-52 nuclear bomb and ASMP missile. In July 1996 the Mirage was retired from this role, but 5 have been kept for strategic reconaissance missions. They are operated by the 1/91 Gascogne squadron at Mont-de-Marsan, the rest of the Mirage-IVP are in storage Chateaudun.

Mururoa Atoll Murruroa Map
Mururoa (Moruroa) Atoll
French tally: 208 shots
U.S. tally: 935
World tally: 2042

Murruroa 143 K Up34 K
Mururoa IMururoa II

Sea Goddess: A 1995 French nuclear test at Mururoa

Two views of Sea Goddess:

Sea Goddess 143 K

Sea Goddess 2170 K

The Diagnostic Cannister

Diagnostic Cannister25 K

The Firing Panel Firing Panel50 K

French Nuclear Tests

Test Series Test Name Date (GCT) Location Test Type Yield (kt) Purpose Comments
Atmospheric Algerian Tests
Gerboise Bleue 0704 GMT; 13 February 1960 00.04W, 26.19N; Reganne, Algeria 105 m tower 60-70 kt Weapon effects Pure fission device with a plutonium core and a one-point initiated implosion system
Gerboise Blanche 0617 GMT; 1 April 1960 00.09W, 26.06N; Reganne, Algeria surface <20 kt Weapon related Plutonium fission device, weight 1290 kg
Gerboise Rouge 0730 GMT; 27 December 1960 Hammoudia, Algeria 100 m tower several kt Weapon effects Plutonium fission device
Gerboise Verte 06:00:00.0 GMT; 25 April 1961 Reganne, Algeria tower <1 kt ? Plutonium fission device. This device was detonated not in a normal planned test, but in a hastily arranged destruction action to prevent from being captured by French military mutineers. On 22 April 1961 the "Revolt of the Generals" had broken out during the Algerian Civil War, when General Maurice Challe mutinied and staged an attempted coup. The yield of this shot may have been intentionally compromised.
Underground Algerian Tests
Agate 11:29:59.931 GMT; 7 November 1961 5:03:07.6E, 24:03:25.5N; Ecker, Algeria shaft <20 kt Weapon related First French underground test.
Beryl 10:00:00.458 GMT; 1 May 1962 5:02:30.8E, 24:03:46.8N; Ecker, Algeria shaft >20 kt Weapon related, AN11 bomb development Accidental radiation release
Emeraude 10:02:00.351 GMT; 18 March 1963 5:03:07.9E, 24:02:28.9N; Ecker, Algeria shaft 10 kt Weapon related This was the first test conducted after Algeria gained formal independence. Accidental radiation release.
Amethyste 09:59:00.328 GMT; 30 March 1963 5:03:25.2E, 24:02:36.0N; Ecker, Algeria shaft <20 kt Weapon related
Rubis 13:00:00.011 GMT; 20 October 1963 5:02:19.0E, 24:02:07.8N; Ecker, Algeria shaft 52-68 kt Weapon related Second largest of the 13 Algerian underground tests.
Opale/Michele 11:00:00.347 GMT; 14 February 1964 5:03:08.6E, 24:03:13.1N; Ecker, Algeria shaft 3.7 kt Weapon related
Topaze 13:40:00.367 GMT; 15 June 1964 5:02:04.4E, 24:03:59.8N; Ecker, Algeria shaft <20 kt Weapon related
Turquois 10:30:00.035 GMT; 28 November 1964 5:02:30.1E, 24:02:30.7N; Ecker, Algeria shaft <20 kt Weapon related
Saphir/Monique 11:30:00.039 GMT; 27 February 1965 5:01:52.3E, 24:03:31.4N; Ecker, Algeria shaft, -785 m 117-127 kt Weapon related Largest underground test in Algeria
Jade 11:00:00.037 GMT; 30 May 1965 5:03:03.1E, 24:03:18.0N; Ecker, Algeria shaft <20 kt Weapon related
Corindon 10:00:00.043 GMT; 1 October 1965 5:02:02.6E, 24:03:53.7N; Ecker, Algeria shaft <20 kt Weapon related
Tourmaline 10:30:00.088 GMT; 1 December 1965 5:02:48.9E, 24:02:37.4N; Ecker, Algeria shaft <20 kt Weapon related
Grenat/Georgette 11:00:00.035 GMT; 16 February 1966 5:02:28.4E, 24:02:39.0N; Ecker, Algeria shaft, -403 m <20 kt Weapon related
Atmospheric Pacific Tests
First Campaign Aldebaran 15:34 GMT; 2 July 1966 Muruoa Atoll Barge 30 kt Weapon related, AN 52 bomb development First Pacific Test, fission bomb

Aug 24		1968			First thermonuclear	Fangataufa

Jun 8		1974			End of atmospheric 
					tests (41 shots in
					Pacific region) 

Jun 5		1975			First underground shot	Fangataufa

Apr 8		1992			Suspension of tests

Jun 13		1995			Chirac decision
					to resume tests

Sep 5		1995			Tests resume		Moruroa
					Sea Goddess (20kt)

Oct 2		1995			< 150 kt		Fangataufa

Oct 28		1995			approx 60 kt		Moruroa

Nov 23		1995			approx 60-80 kt            Moruroa

Dec 28		1995			30kt			Moruroa

The United States and United Kingdom will share in the test data from the 1995 series of shots.

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