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Nuclear Last updated: August, 2013

France's involvement in the development of nuclear energy dates back to the years immediately prior to WWII, when the so-called "Paris Group" was instrumental in sustaining a chain reaction through the use of a moderator. The Paris Group - comprised of four scientists at the College de France in Paris - showed that when fission occurs in a uranium nucleus two or three neutrons are released, creating the possibility for a chain reaction. However, it was not until the 1950s that France embarked on a nuclear weapons program; its first successful nuclear test was carried out in the Sahara Desert of Algeria in 1960. The rationale for France developing its own nuclear weapons program has been largely attributed to reasons of security and prestige.

Current Force Configuration

France's nuclear force today includes both air- and sea-based components that are maintained at a level deemed "sufficient" to the strategic context. Its sea-based deterrent comprises four Le Triomphant-class nuclear submarines fitted with 16 M45 or M51 domestically manufactured submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) that carry up to six warheads. [1] The fourth and final vessel of this class, Le Terrible entered into service in September 2010 and is armed with the new M51 SLBM. The strategic submarine fleet is based on France's Atlantic coast at Ile Longue, Bretagne, and is configured to the minimum level required to maintain a continuous-at-sea presence.

France's air-based deterrent includes four air squadrons at four separate bases. The land-based squadrons - located at Istres, Luxeuil-les-Bains and Saint-Dizier - comprise 60 Mirage aircraft that carry the ASMP short-range attack missile. [2] One further squadron is located at the Toulon naval base, where 24 Super-Etendard aircraft (also carrying the ASMP air-to-land missile) are launched from the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier. [3] France claims that it requires an air-based leg - in addition to its strategic submarine fleet - because the Trident D-5 missile used by the British navy is more accurate than the M45 and M51. As a result of this greater accuracy, the United Kingdom is able to rely on its sea-based deterrent alone whereas France requires a more flexible deterrent. [4]

Modernization

France has recently completed the modernization of its strategic submarine fleet, with the final vessel due to enter service in 2010. Although the first three boats carry the older M45 SLBM, the fourth is fitted with the new longer-range M51, which carries the same TN75 warhead as the M45. [5] However, from 2010 the M51 SLBM is due to be armed with the new TNO nuclear warhead. [6]

Paris is also engaged in the process of replacing its Mirage 2000N and Super-Etendard aircraft with the new Rafale F3 fighter jet. [7] The ASMP air-to-ground missile, which had been carried by French fighter-bomber aircraft since 1986, has been replaced by the improved ASMP Amélioré. This missile has an increased range of 300 km and is fitted with the new TNA warhead, which has a maximum yield of 300 kilotons. [8] Both the new TNO and TNA warheads were tested in France's final round of nuclear testing in September 1996.

To ensure the safety and viability of their nuclear weapons stockpiles - while adhering to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty - France and the UK signed a bilateral agreement in November 2010 that will allow for cooperation in this area. [9] Joint activities will involve the construction of a simulation facility in Valduc, France, where scientists from both countries will conduct work on the safety and security of their respective nations' warheads. A joint Technology Development Center will also be established in Aldermaston, UK, to develop simulation technology for the center at Valduc. It is estimated that the Valduc facility will become operational around 2014 with construction costs to be split equally between France and the United Kingdom. [10]

Force Posture and Doctrine

France's nuclear weapons doctrine is based on the policy of dissuasion (an equivalent of deterrence), which states that an attack on France's vital interests would bring about a nuclear response in the form of unacceptable damage. This basic policy was reiterated by the 2008 and 2013 White Papers on National Defense and Security (le Livre blanc), as well as speeches made by Presidents Chirac, Sarkozy and Holland. [11] Exactly what constitutes France's national interest is slightly ambiguous, but analysts generally describe it as including the free exercise of sovereignty, national territorial integrity, and the integrity of its overseas territories. Nevertheless, France maintains a degree of calculated ambiguity regarding its vital interests.

There is also a question over whether or not France would employ nuclear weapons in response to state-sponsored chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear terrorism. In a 2006 speech President Chirac stated that "leaders of states resorting to terrorist means against us, as those who might consider, one way or the other, weapons of mass destruction, must understand that they risk a firm and adapted response from us. And this response can be of a conventional nature. It can also be of another nature." [12] However, France's nuclear weapons are only seen as having utility as a deterrent against state actors. [13]

Arms Reductions

In 1996, President Jacques Chirac introduced a number of reforms to France's nuclear forces, including scaling back the strategic submarine fleet from five vessels to four (in 1991 France reduced its fleet of Le Redoutable-class SSBNs from six boats to five after the lead vessel, Le Redoutable, was decommissioned), withdrawing aging Mirage IVP bombers from service, and dismantling the Plateau d'Albion land-based ballistic missile site. The decision to disband Plateau d'Albion is significant as France became the only state to have designed, developed and dismantled its land-based nuclear missiles.

In March 2008, President Sarkozy delivered a speech in Cherbourg at the launching of the fourth vessel of France's new fleet of strategic nuclear submarines, Le Terrible. In the speech, Sarkozy announced that the "number of nuclear weapons, missiles and aircraft will be reduced by one-third." [14] As a result of this reduction, the country would have no more than 300 nuclear warheads in total. This declaration of total (as opposed to operational) warheads represents a high-level of French transparency with regards to its nuclear weapons arsenal.

Disarmament

Historically, France has adopted a conservative approach towards nuclear disarmament with its leaders avoiding public statements on the issue. This can be seen today in the more cautious approach taken by French officials in comparison to their British and American counterparts. [15] Such conservatism can be explained by the strong link that exists between the possession of nuclear weapons and feelings of national independence, something that is reflected in a general public that is relatively pro-nuclear. While French opinion polls on this subject are rare, one conducted by the Department of Defense in 2006 found that 61 percent of the population believes France requires nuclear weapons in order to defend herself. [16]

As a result, French politicians have been less forthcoming in emphasizing the country's willingness to join nuclear disarmament negotiations at the appropriate time. This is partly due to them being unconvinced that disarmament will result in increased security. Although President Sarkozy's Cherbourg speech did address the disarmament subject directly, something that marks a subtle change in French policy, it also urged caution and reinforced the message that France will continue to maintain its nuclear weapons at a level of "strict sufficiency." [17] While it is true that this is not significantly different from the British policy of "minimum deterrence," the emphasis that Paris places on maintenance as opposed to willingness to engage, continues to create some ambiguity over France's position. Nevertheless, France has set out some practical steps towards disarmament that were alluded to by Sarkozy in both the Cherbourg speech and a letter that was sent by France to the UN Secretary General under its six month presidency of the European Union in 2008. These steps include the universal ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the transparent dismantlement of all nuclear testing facilities, and a moratorium on the production of fissile material.

An important part of France's approach to nuclear disarmament is that it emphasizes the "multidimensional character" of Article VI of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and consistently links both nuclear and conventional disarmament. [18] This linkage was referred to in the Cherbourg speech as President Sarkozy stated that the agenda he laid out was an attempt to place us "on the path towards nuclear disarmament and general and complete disarmament." [19] This position was also re-emphasized in Sarkozy's 2008 letter to Ban Ki-moon. [20]

Paris deserves recognition for the arms reductions it has made (outlined above), as well as the transparent manner in which it has dismantled the fissile material production facilities at Marcoule and Pierrelatte. In an unprecedented move in September 2008, French authorities organized a tour of these facilities for member state representatives to the Conference on Disarmament. This policy demonstrates both France's commitment to its 1996 decision to cease producing fissile materials for nuclear weapons, and its support for a verifiable Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty. [21]

Civilian Nuclear Sector

As a result of a long-standing policy based on energy security, France has an extensive nuclear energy sector with over 76 percent of the country's electricity coming from nuclear sources. [22] Power generation is provided by 59 nuclear power plants operated by Électricité de France (EdF). France is also Europe's largest provider of electricity, which it regularly supplies to neighboring countries such as Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Demand is created by the comparatively small nuclear sectors of these countries; Italy, for instance, does not have any operating nuclear power plants. [23]

The origins of French nuclear energy policy lay in the first oil shock of 1973, after which the government decided to rapidly expand the country's nuclear energy sector and to reduce dependence on imported fossil fuels. This need for nuclear energy is made more acute by a lack of natural energy resources. Beginning in 1974, an aggressive nuclear power program was launched based on Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) technology and France has since invested more than $160 billion in its nuclear program. [24] As a result, the country now has a high level of energy independence and relatively low carbon emissions (some of the lowest CO2 emissions per capita in the world).

All of France's reactors are currently PWRs designed by Areva (the French nuclear energy company), but the Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) is also in the process of designing a Generation IV reactor. Three fourth-generation technologies are being pursued: gas-cooled fast reactors; sodium-cooled fast reactors; and very high temperature gas-cooled reactors. [25] Areva, in conjunction with the German company Siemens, is also developing the European Pressurized Water Reactor (EPR) at Flamanville, Normandie. In mid-2004 the board of EdF decided to build a demonstration unit for an expected series of 1650 MWe Areva NP EPRs and this decision was confirmed in 2006. [26] Construction on the EPR at Flamanville began in December 2007, and was initially expected to be completed in 2012. However, the reactor is now scheduled to begin operations in 2016. [27]

France is also an extensive exporter of civilian nuclear technology, having previously supplied PWR reactor technology to Belgium, South Africa, South Korea and China. [28] Both China and Finland are currently building French-designed reactors and Beijing recently signed an 8 billion Euro contract to buy two Areva EPRs. A Memorandum of Understanding has also been signed with India and talks are underway to export EPR technology to the United Kingdom, India, Abu Dhabi and the United States. [29]

On 27 June 2011, President Sarkozy announced his government’s intention to borrow and invest one billion Euros into the French civilian nuclear sector, and particularly into fourth-generation technology. Sarkozy's speech linked the plan to maintaining French energy independence, creating economic growth, and improving nuclear security. [30]

Fuel Cycle Facilities

France imports uranium oxide from Canada and Niger, while most fuel cycle services are carried out domestically by Areva. The country's fuel-cycle facilities can be categorized as follows:

  • Conversion - Natural uranium is converted to hexafluoride at the Comurhex Pierrelatte plant in the Rhone Valley. Additional conversion plants have been approved for construction at Malvesi, as well as a further plant at Pierrelatte.
  • Enrichment - Gaseous diffusion takes place at the Eurodif plant, Tricastin. In 2003 Areva also agreed to purchase a 50 percent stake in the Urenco Enrichment Technology Company (ETC). This deal will provide Areva with access to Urenco centrifuge technology. A new enrichment plant, Georges Besse II, has been under construction since 2007 and is due to be fully operational by 2016.
  • Fuel Fabrication - Areva carries out fuel fabrication in multiple plants in both France and Belgium. Once spent fuel has been reprocessed at La Hague in Normandy, plutonium is then fabricated at the Melox plant near Marcoule to produce mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel.
  • Reprocessing - Reprocessing is carried out by Areva at La Hague, where back end services are provided for France and other countries. [31]

Nuclear Fusion

In 2005, France was awarded the right to host the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), an attempt to demonstrate the feasibility of producing commercial energy from fusion. The experimental reactor is located at Cadarache, southern France, and partners in the project include the European Union (EU), United States, Russia, Japan, South Korea and China. Site preparation began in 2007 and facility construction began in July 2010. Cadarache narrowly beat another prospective site, Rokkasho in Japan, partly because the EU agreed to pay 45 percent of the plant's construction. The facility is expected to begin operations in 2022. [32]

Fissile Materials

According to France's 2011 declaration to the IAEA Board of Governors, on 31 December 2010 it possessed 47 tons (t) of separated plutonium in product stores at reprocessing plants. In addition, there were 27.1t in unirradiated MOX fuel and other fabricated products at reactor sites, as well as 5.5t of unirradiated plutonium in the course of fabrication. France also holds 0.6t elsewhere. Plutonium contained in spent fuel at civilian nuclear reactor sites was estimated at 104.6t and there was a further 133.2t contained in spent fuel at reprocessing plants. Approximately 6.4t of plutonium was contained in spent fuel held elsewhere. This brings the total amount of plutonium held in spent fuel on 31 December 2008 to 244.2t. [33]

In France's 2009 INFCIRC/549 declaration to the IAEA on plutonium holdings it also voluntary declared its stock of civilian highly enriched uranium (HEU). According to this declaration, France has the following stocks of civilian HEU: 979kg at fuel fabrication plants or other processing facilities; 1845kg at civilian reactor sites; 423kg at laboratories and research centers; 174kg of irradiated HEU at civil reactor sites; and 1,217kg of irradiated HEU at locations other than civil reactor sites. This brings France's total inventory of HEU holdings to 4638kg. [34]

Sources:
[1] Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen, "Nuclear Notebook: Worldwide deployments of nuclear weapons, 2009," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November-December 2009, p. 90; and "The Military Balance 2009," International Institute of Strategic Studies, (London: Routledge, 2009), p. 119.
[2] "The Military Balance 2009," International Institute of Strategic Studies, (London: Routledge, 2009), p. 119.
[3] "The Military Balance 2009," International Institute of Strategic Studies, (London: Routledge, 2009), p. 119.
[4] Bruno Tertrais, "French Perspectives on Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Disarmament," in (ed) Barry Blechman, Unblocking the Road to Zero, The Henry L. Stimson Center, February 2009, p.11.
[5] Bruno Tertrais, "French Perspectives on Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Disarmament," in (ed) Barry Blechman, Unblocking the Road to Zero, The Henry L. Stimson Center, February 2009, p.10.
[6] Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen, "Nuclear Notebook: Worldwide deployments of nuclear weapons, 2009," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November-December 2009, p. 90; "Le SNLE Le Vigilant Retrouve l'Ile Longue," Mer et Marine, 22 October 2012, www.meretmarine.com; "L'enquête sur le missile M51 est bientôt bouclée…mais elle restera confidentielle," France Télévisions, 16 May 2013, bretagne.france3.fr.
[7] Kingston Reif, "Nuclear weapons: The modernization myth," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 8 December 2009, www.thebulletin.org; and Pierre Tran, "France Qualifies Rafale to full F3 Standard," Defense News, www.defensenews.com.
[8] Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen, "Nuclear Notebook: Worldwide deployments of nuclear weapons, 2009," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November-December 2009, p. 91; Hans Kristensen, "France," in Assuring Destruction Forever, ed. Ray Acheson (Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, 2012) 27-30; "ASMP-A" Missile Threat, 5 April 2013, missilethreat.com.
[9] "UK-France Summit 2010 Declaration on Defence and Security Cooperation," 10 Downing Street, 2 November 2010, www.number10.gov.uk.
[10] "Cameron and Sarkozy hail UK-France defence treaties," BBC News, 2 November 2010, www.bbc.co.uk.
[11] Speech of President Jacques Chirac during a visit to the French strategic forces at Ille Longue, Brest, 19 January 2006, www.ambafrance-au.org; and President Nicolas Sarkozy, "Presentation of Le Terrible in Cherbourg, 21 March 2008, www.carnegieendowment.org; "Hollande exclut l'abandon de la dissuasion nucléaire proposé par Rocard," Le Parisien, 20 June 2013, www.leparisien.fr; "Livre Blanc: Défense et Sécurité Nationale," Ministère de la Défense, 29 April 2013; "The main thrust of the White Paper: Twelve key points and new orientations," Ministère de la Défense, 2013.
[12] Speech of President Jacques Chirac during a visit to the French strategic forces at Ille Longue, Brest, 19 January 2006, www.ambafrance-au.org.
[13] Bruno Tertrais, "The Last to Disarm? The Future of France's Nuclear Weapons," Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 14, No. 2, July 2007, p.253.
[14] President Nicolas Sarkozy, "Presentation of Le Terrible in Cherbourg, 21 March 2008, www.carnegieendowment.org.
[15] Bruno Tertrais, "France and Nuclear Disarmament: The Meaning of the Sarkozy Speech," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1 May 2008, www.carnegieendowment.org.
[16] The Ministry of Defence, Les Français et la Défense, 2006, in Bruno Tertrais, "La dissuasion nucléaire en 2030," Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, www.frstrategie.org, December 2006, p.40. Individuals were asked "Could a country like France defend herself without a deterrence force(nuclear)?"
[17] President Nicolas Sarkozy, "Presentation of Le Terrible in Cherbourg, 21 March 2008, www.carnegieendowment.org.
[18] Bruno Tertrais, "French Perspectives on Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Disarmament," in (ed) Barry Blechman, Unblocking the Road to Zero, The Henry L. Stimson Center, February 2009, p.13.
[19] President Nicolas Sarkozy, "Presentation of Le Terrible in Cherbourg, 21 March 2008, www.carnegieendowment.org.
[20] Letter from Nicolas Sarkozy to Ban Ki-moon, Embassy of France in the United Kingdom, 5 December 2008, www.ambafrance-uk.org.
[21] "France organized a tour of its former military facilities at Pierrelatte and Marcoule," Joint Communiqué of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defense, 16 December 2008, www.diplomatie.gouv.fr.
[22] "Nuclear Power in France," World Nuclear Association, www.world-nuclear.org, 13 April 2010.
[23] "Nuclear Power in France," World Nuclear Association, www.world-nuclear.org, 13 April 2010.
[24] "Nuclear Energy in France," Embassy of France in the United States, www.ambafrance-us.org.
[25] "Nuclear Power in France," World Nuclear Association, www.world-nuclear.org, 13 April 2010.
[26] "Nuclear Power in France," World Nuclear Association, www.world-nuclear.org, 13 April 2010.
[27] "Nuclear Power in France," World Nuclear Association, www.world-nuclear.org, 13 April 2010; "Flamanville costs up 2 billion," World Nuclear News, 4 December 2013, www.world-nuclear-news.org.
[28] "Nuclear Power in France," World Nuclear Association, www.world-nuclear.org, 13 April 2010.
[29] Dave Clark "French nuclear export drive tainted by safety fears," AFP, 4 November 2009.
[30] Gabrielle Parsunni and William Horobin, "Sarkozy: To Invest EUR 1 Bln In 4th Generation Nuclear Reactors," The Wall Street Journal, 27 June 2011, http://online.wsj.com.
[31] "Nuclear Power in France," World Nuclear Association, www.world-nuclear.org, 13 April 2010.
[32] Robin McKie, "Nuclear fusion dream hit by EU's cash dilemma," The Guardian, 6 June 2010, www.guardian.co.uk; "Building ITER," ITER Organization, 2013, www.iter.org; Steve Connor, "One giant leap for mankind: £13bn Iter project makes breakthrough in the quest for nuclear fusion, a solution for climate change and an age of clean, cheap energy," The Independent, 27 April 2013, www.independent.co.uk.
[33] "Communication received from France concerning its policies regarding the management of plutonium," International Atomic Energy Agency, INFCIRC/549/Add.5/13, 15 September 2009, www.iaea.org.
[34] "Communication Received from France Concerning its Policies Regarding the Management of Plutonium," International Atomic Energy Agency, INFCIRC/549/Add.5/15, 11 October 2011, www.iaea.org.

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This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents.

Get the Facts on France

  • Maintains an arsenal of approximately 300 nuclear weapons
  • Manufactured significant quantities of Sarin and VX nerve agents during the 1960s, but asserted in 1988 that it no longer possessed or produced chemical weapons.
  • Currently developing a next-generation ballistic missile for its SSBNs