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France

Nuclear

Last updated: May, 2016

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 maintains up to 300 warheads and deploys submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and fighter aircraft. In February 2015, President François Hollande reaffirmed this warhead limit, which was first announced by former President Nicholas Sarkozy in 2008. [1]

The sea-based leg of the French nuclear force consists of four Le Triomphant-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), based at Ile Longue, Bretagne on the Atlantic coast. While at least one SSBN is always deployed, three vessels must be operational at all times. [2] The submarines are fitted with 16 M45 or M51 domestically-manufactured SLBMs that can carry up to six MIRV (Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicles) TN75 warheads. [3] The French Navy is currently transitioning from the aging M45 SLBMs to newer M51s. The newest submarine in the French fleet, Le Terrible, entered into service in September 2010, and is fully equipped with the extended-range M51.1 (estimated at 6,000 km). [4] France began to place M51s on its remaining three SSBNs in 2010 with plans to complete the process by 2020. [5]

The French air-based deterrent consists of four squadrons of fighter aircraft located at four bases. Land-based squadrons―deployed at Avord, Istres, and Saint-Dizier―comprise of 23 Mirage 2000N aircraft and 20 Rafales, both fitted with ASMP-ALCM air-launched cruise missiles. [6] France also deploys a squadron of up to 24 newer Rafale M aircraft on the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier, based out of Toulon. [7] In 2011, France completed the replacement of the ASMP ALCM, which had been carried by French fighter aircraft since 1986, with the upgraded ASMP-A. The ASMP-A has a range of 500 km (up from 300km), and is fitted with the new 300-kiloton TNA warhead. [8] Both France's Mirage 2000N K3 aircraft squadron at Istres and its Rafale F3 aircraft squadron at Saint Dizier are equipped with the new missile. [9] In February 2015, Francois Hollande revealed that, "France…possesses 54 AMP-A missiles," a figure which had not been previously released. [10]

Modernization

France is in the process of updating both its sea and air-based nuclear forces pursuant to a new Military Programming Law passed in December 2013. [11] In February 2015, President François Hollande announced that Paris would allocate 12.3 % (180 billion euros) of its annual defense budget towards the enhancement of its nuclear deterrent capabilities until 2019. [12]

At least two of France's oldest Triomphant-class SSBNs have undergone modification  for deployment of the M51 SLBM, with a third, Le Téméraire, reportedly slotted for upgrade in 2016. [13] The newest SSBN, Le Terrible, was built to accommodate the M51. In addition to the ongoing replacement of M45 SLBMs with the M51, France aims to begin deployment of an improved version, the M51.2, in 2016, which has a range of 9,000 km. [14] The M51.2 will be equipped with a new warhead known as the TNO (Tete Nucleaire Oceanique) warhead. [15] Reportedly, the TNO has maneuverable capabilities, and an estimated yield of 150 kilotons of TNT (kt). [16] Paris has also initiated studies on a third generation SSBN, with hopes of replacing its current vessels starting in 2035. [17] This new SSBNs will be armed with further improved M51.3 SLBMs. [18]

Paris is also in the process of replacing its entire Mirage 2000N fleet with the new Rafale F3 fighter jet. The transition should be completed by 2018. [19] In addition, France aims to integrate the ASMP-A cruise missile on all new Rafale jets by 2018 as well. [20] In 2014, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced France had commenced studies on a new airborne, hypersonic missile known as the air-sol nucléaire fourth-generation (ASN4G) to replace the ASMP-A. [21] The new missile is planned to enter service in the 2030s, but before that time, France will upgrade the ASMP-A in the mid-2020s. [22]

In November 2010, France and the United Kingdom signed the bilateral "Lancaster Agreement," allowing for joint projects "to test the safety of their nuclear warheads" without performing actual nuclear explosive tests. [23] Activities will involve construction of the EPURE 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. [24] The Valduc facility became operational in 2014 with construction costs split equally between France and the United Kingdom. [25] In a testament to the treaty's success, on the fifth anniversary of the agreement in November 2015 Defense Secretary Michael Fallon and French Minister for Defense Le Drian reaffirmed the two countries' commitment to defense cooperation. [26]

Force Posture and Doctrine

France relies on nuclear deterrence as an ultimate guarantee of French sovereignty. [27] French officials describe the function of nuclear deterrence as "aiming to protect [the country] from any form of state actor aggression against the [country's] vital interests, regardless of its origin or its form." [28] Over the years, this core policy has been reaffirmed by various presidents, (Chirac, Sarkozy, and Hollande) as well as in the 2008 and 2013 White Papers on National Defense and Security. [29] Although the definition of France's vital interests is left vague, analysts agree that it covers the free exercise of sovereignty as well as integrity of national and overseas territories, and extends beyond the protection against nuclear attack. [30] For example, in 2008 President Sarkozy stated "Our nuclear deterrence protects us from any aggression against our vital interests emanating from a state―wherever it may come from and whatever form it may take." [31]

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 their entirety. During a speech delivered in March 2008 in Cherbourg, then President Nicolas Sarkozy announced that the "number of nuclear weapons, missiles and aircraft will be reduced by one-third." [32] 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. However, France's commitment to retaining its nuclear deterrent remains strong and the new administration has no plans for further reductions.

Disarmament

Historically, France has adopted a conservative approach towards nuclear disarmament. This can be seen today in the more cautious approach taken by French officials in comparison to their British and American counterparts. [33] 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 French Ministry of Defense in 2006 found that 61 percent of the population believes France requires nuclear weapons in order to defend herself. [34]

French officials have expressed support for the eventual goal of complete nuclear disarmament, but have been reticent to push for multilateral negotiations towards this end, emphasizing that "the strategic context that [would] allow for it," does not yet exist. [35] This perspective stems in part from a sense of doubt by the French 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." [36] The Ministry of Defense continues to highlight its Nuclear Transparency and Security Law, a law that guarantees a commitment to nuclear security through the maintenance of a nuclear weapons arsenal. [37]

Nevertheless, France has taken some practical steps towards disarmament. In September 1996, Paris signed and two years later ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and dismantled its nuclear testing sites at the Pacific Testing Center (CEP) in 1998. [38] France also no longer produces fissile material for nuclear weapons, ceasing production of plutonium in 1992 and production of highly enriched uranium (HEU) in 1996. [39] France announced and initiated the dismantlement of its production facilities at Marcoule and Pierrelatte in 1996. [40] The Pierrelatte facility was completely dismantled by 2008, while similar efforts at the Marcoule plant are expected to continue through 2035. [41] Consistent with this policy, France has repeatedly pushed for negotiations on a verifiable Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty within the Conference on Disarmament, believing "these negotiations constitute the next logical step at the multilateral level [towards] creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons." [42]

Civilian Nuclear Sector

Home to 58 nuclear power plants generating about 75 percent of the country's electricity, France has a robust civil nuclear sector. [43] France is also Europe's largest provider of electricity generated from nuclear power, which it regularly supplies to neighboring countries such as Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. [44]

The origins of French nuclear energy policy stem from 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. 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. [45] As a result, the country is now largely energy independent and produces relatively low carbon emissions (some of the lowest CO2 emissions per capita in the world in developed countries). [46]

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 early process of designing Generation IV reactors for operation in 2020. Three fourth-generation technologies are being pursued: gas-cooled fast reactors; sodium-cooled fast reactors; and very high temperature gas-cooled reactors. [47] Areva, in conjunction with the German company Siemens, is also developing the European Pressurized Water Reactor (EPR) at a nuclear site in Flamanville, Normandie. In mid-2004 the board of EDF decided to build a demonstration unit for an expected series of 1650 MWe Areva EPRs, a decision which was confirmed in 2006. [48] Construction of the EPR at Flamanville began in December 2007, and was initially slated for completion by 2012. [49] However, the reactor is now scheduled to begin operations in 2017. [50]

On June 27, 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. [51] Sarkozy's speech linked the plan to maintaining French energy independence, creating economic growth, and improving nuclear security. [52] His successor, Francois Hollande, has been less enthusiastic about the future of France's nuclear energy sector. By 2025 Hollande would like to reduce the amount of electricity produced by nuclear plants from 75 to about 50 percent. In 2014, he also announced plans to close the Fessenheim Nuclear Power Plant by 2017 due to safety concerns. [53]

France is also an active international supplier of civilian nuclear technology, having previously exported PWR reactor technology to Belgium, South Africa, South Korea and China. [54] Both China and Finland are currently building French-designed reactors and Beijing recently signed an 8 billion Euro contract to buy two Areva EPRs. [55] Areva had also initiated talks to export EPR technology to Abu Dhabi, India, the United Kingdom, and the United States. [56] However, the company halted development projects in the United States and lost its tender with Abu Dhabi. [57] 

In 2009, the French nuclear energy company Areva signed a Memorandum of Understanding with India's state-owned Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) for the provision of six EPR reactors to India's Jaitapur site, as well as a 25- year fuel supply. [58] After a series of delays, in January 2016 the project was taken over by French utility EDF. [59] Just a day before EDF and NPCIL signed the preliminary agreement, French President Francois Hollande met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India, during which time the two leaders “encouraged their industrial companies to conclude techno-commercial negotiations by the end of 2016," with an aim to begin project implementation by 2017. [60] If successfully concluded, the contract would constitute “the largest in the history of the nuclear industry,” making the Jaitapur nuclear site one of the biggest in the world. [61]

Fuel Cycle Facilities

France imports uranium oxide from Canada and Niger, while most fuel cycle services are carried out domestically by Areva. [62] The country's fuel-cycle facilities can be categorized as follows:

  • Conversion - Natural uranium is converted to hexafluoride at several different plants. Natural uranium is converted to tetrafluoride at the newer Malvesi plant, and is then converted into hexafluoride at either the Comurhex Pierrelatte plant or the Pierrelatte plant in Tricastin. [63]
  • 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). [64] This deal will provide Areva with access to Urenco centrifuge technology. A new enrichment plant, Georges Besse II, started running in 2011. [65]
  • 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. [66]
  • Reprocessing - Reprocessing is carried out by Areva at La Hague, where back-end services are provided for France and other countries. [67]

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 a CEA (Atomic Energy Commission) research and development site at Cadarache in southern France. Partners in the project include the European Union (EU), the United States, Russia, Japan, South Korea, and China. [68] 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 costs. While the facility was expected to begin operations in 2023 it has already experienced a series of delays, driving up costs and prolonging commencement of operation until potentially the 2030s. [69]

Fissile Material

According to an August 2014 declaration of civilian plutonium and HEU holdings to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), France possessed 42.6 metric tons (t) of separated plutonium in product stores at reprocessing plants and 9.5t held up in the course of fuel fabrication at the end of 2013. [70] In addition, France declared 26.0t of plutonium in unirradiated MOX fuel and 0.7t "held elsewhere." [71] France also reported an estimated 120.0t of plutonium contained in spent fuel at civilian reactor sites, 149.1t in spent fuel at reprocessing plants, and 6.4t in spent fuel "held elsewhere." [72]

The report also details French stocks of civilian HEU. At the end of 2013 France possessed 792kg of HEU at fuel fabrication or processing plants, 128kg at civilian reactor sites, 2125kg at laboratories and research centers, 128kg of irradiated HEU at civilian reactor sites, and 1480kg of irradiated HEU at other locations. [73]

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[27] In reference to nuclear deterrence, the 2013 Livre Blanc states that, "La dissuasion nucléaire est l'ultime garantie de notre souveraineté," em>Livre blanc de la défense et sécurité nationale, May 2013, p. 20, www.gouvernement.fr.
[28] 2013 Livre Blanc, p. 75.
[29] Speech of President Jacques Chirac during a visit to the French strategic forces at Ille Longue, Brest, January 19, 2006, www.ambafrance-au.org; and President Nicolas Sarkozy, "Presentation of Le Terrible in Cherbourg, March 21, 2008, www.carnegieendowment.org; "Hollande exclut l'abandon de la dissuasion nucléaire proposé par Rocard, " Le Parisien, June 20, 2013, www.leparisien.fr; "Livre Blanc: Défense et Sécurité Nationale," Ministère de la Défense, April 29, 2013; "The main thrust of the White Paper: Twelve key points and new orientations," Ministère de la Défense, 2013.
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[36] President Nicolas Sarkozy, "Presentation of Le Terrible in Cherbourg," March 21, 2008, www.carnegieendowment.org.
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[46] "CO2 emssions (metric tons per capita," Report by the World Bank, 2014, www.worldbank.com
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[56] Dave Clark "French nuclear export drive tainted by safety fears," AFP, November 4, 2009.
[57] World Nuclear News, "US EPR Plans Suspended," World Nuclear News, March 6, 2015, www.world-nuclear-news.org; Francetv Info, "Areva: Ce qu'il Faut Savoir sur le Désastre," France tv info, March 4, 2015, www.francetvinfo.fr.
[58] Areva, "The Jaitapur Nuclear Power Project," accessed May 4, 2016.
[59] Geert De Clercq "EDF signs preliminary deal to build six nuclear plants in India," Reuters, January 26, 2016.
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[61] Geert De Clercq "EDF signs preliminary deal to build six nuclear plants in India," Reuters, January 26, 2016.
[62] "Operations," AREVA, www.areva.com.
[63] "Operations," AREVA, www.areva.com.
[64] "Nuclear Power in France," World Nuclear Association, www.world-nuclear.org, June 16, 2014.
[65] "Operations," AREVA, www.areva.com.
[66] Areva, Operations, Recycling Spent Fuel, www.areva.com, 2014.
[67] Areva, Operations, Recycling Spent Fuel, www.areva.com.
[68] Robin McKie, "Nuclear fusion dream hit by EU's cash dilemma," The Guardian, June 6, 2010, www.guardian.co.uk; "Building ITER," ITER Organization, 2013, www.iter.org.
[69] Sumit Paul-Choudhury, "Complex Fusion Reactor Takes Shape as Start Date Slips," New Scientist, May 16, 2014, www.newscientist.com; 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, April 27, 2013, www.independent.co.uk; Fred Pearce "China spends big on nuclear fusion as French plan falls behind," New Scientist July 23, 2015; Daniel Clery," ITER fusion project to take at least 6 years longer than planned, "Science Magazine, November 19, 2015.
[70] International Atomic Energy Agency, "Communication Received from France Concerning its Policies regarding the Management of Plutonium, Statements on the Management of Plutonium: Statements on the Management of Plutonium and of High Enriched Uranium," INFCIRC/549/Add.5/19, August 28, 2015.
[71] International Atomic Energy Agency, "Communication Received from France Concerning its Policies regarding the Management of Plutonium, Statements on the Management of Plutonium: Statements on the Management of Plutonium and of High Enriched Uranium," INFCIRC/549/Add.5/19, August 28, 2015.
[72] International Atomic Energy Agency, "Communication Received from France Concerning its Policies regarding the Management of Plutonium, Statements on the Management of Plutonium: Statements on the Management of Plutonium and of High Enriched Uranium," INFCIRC/549/Add.5/19, August 28, 2015.
[73] International Atomic Energy Agency, "Communication Received from France Concerning its Policies regarding the Management of Plutonium, Statements on the Management of Plutonium: Statements on the Management of Plutonium and of High Enriched Uranium," INFCIRC/549/Add.5/19, August 28, 2015.

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

This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury 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. Copyright 2016.