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Michael Lambert

PhD, political psychologist working at the intersection of medicine and political science, broadening the topics of Blue Ocean Strategy in international politics and the study of mathematical models of strategic interaction between decision-makers in para-states

On 19 November 1959, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) published a scientific intelligence report on “ The French Nuclear Weapons Program” (CIA/SI 47-59) analyzing the state of progress of the French research in this specific field. The secret report describes France’s capabilities in plutonium production, extraction, isotope separation and the development of nuclear weapons as well as puts forward a possible first nuclear test in the Sahara Desert at Reggane (French Algeria).

According to the CIA, France began research into the military use of such energy in the mid-1950s to allegedly carry out its first nuclear test as early as November 1959. The report states that Paris would have 15–25 kilograms of plutonium for military use by July 1959 and could increase its production to 100 kilograms per year by 1960, rising up to 550 kilograms in 1965.

The US intelligence estimates that the bomb would be thrown from a 91-metre tower, and that in the absence of U-235 in sufficient quantity, France’s first nuclear weapon will be an implosion-type bomb. France would wish to demonstrate its capabilities to the rest of the world—to the United States, in particular—by making the test as sophisticated as possible, which will make it plausible to meet the legal requirements for negotiating an exchange of information on this type of weapon with Washington.

Contrary to the CIA’s estimates, the “ Gerboise bleue” test took place on 13 February 1960. However, as the American intelligence predicted, it occurred in the Sahara region at Reggane and was most powerful A-bomb test in the world, since the French had themselves spied on the US nuclear program, ensuring access to secret data publications as part of the “Atoms for Peace” cooperation.

This article aims to analyze the CIA’s position on the French nuclear program and what the American intelligence services knew about it back in 1959 through the report “ The French Nuclear Weapons Program” (CIA/SI 47-59), as well as its consequences on stability in Europe and internationally.

On 19 November 1959, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) published a scientific intelligence report on “ The French Nuclear Weapons Program” (CIA/SI 47-59) analyzing the state of progress of the French research in this specific field. The secret report describes France’s capabilities in plutonium production, extraction, isotope separation and the development of nuclear weapons as well as puts forward a possible first nuclear test in the Sahara Desert at Reggane (French Algeria).

According to the CIA, France began research into the military use of such energy in the mid-1950s to allegedly carry out its first nuclear test as early as November 1959. The report states that Paris would have 15-25 kilograms of plutonium for military use by July 1959 and could increase its production to 100 kilograms per year by 1960, rising up to 550 kilograms in 1965.

The US intelligence estimates that the bomb would be thrown from a 91-metre tower, and that in the absence of U-235 in sufficient quantity, France’s first nuclear weapon will be an implosion-type bomb. France would wish to demonstrate its capabilities to the rest of the world—to the United States, in particular—by making the test as sophisticated as possible, which will make it plausible to meet the legal requirements for negotiating an exchange of information on this type of weapon with Washington.

Contrary to the CIA’s estimates, the “ Gerboise bleue” test took place on 13 February 1960. However, as the American intelligence predicted, it occurred in the Sahara region at Reggane and was most powerful A-bomb test in the world, since the French had themselves spied on the US nuclear program, ensuring access to secret data publications as part of the “Atoms for Peace” cooperation.

This article aims to analyze the CIA’s position on the French nuclear program and what the American intelligence services knew about it back in 1959 through the report “ The French Nuclear Weapons Program” (CIA/SI 47-59), as well as its consequences on stability in Europe and internationally.

Why does De Gaulle’s France want to develop its own military nuclear program?

At the end of the Second World War, France’s military capabilities were diminished, while the Nazi occupation (1939-1945) pre-conditioned the modernization of the military-industrial complex. It is in this context that many countries colonized by France wanted more autonomy from Paris, as shown by the massacre of Sétif and Guelma in French Algeria where the autonomists rose up on 8 May 1945.

In a bipolar and nuclear world, France no longer appeared to be a country capable of negotiating with the Soviet Union and the United States. Added to this is the British nuclear program (first nuclear test took place on October 3, 1952), which suggests that France was lagging behind technologically, something that called into question its status as a “great power” [1].

As the CIA mentioned in The French Nuclear Weapons Program (1959) report, it was in 1952 when Paris decided to set up a 5-year plan for the development of nuclear energy, with the idea of putting the necessary means in place to produce more plutonium. However, it was not until 1958 that the idea of military use was warranted by the public opinion for it to become a national priority, at the time of the Crisis of May 1958 which marked the return to power of General de Gaulle and the Putsch d’Alger.

The CIA mentions the construction of a research center in Marcoule near Avignon as early as 1954, which was to be completed by 1958. This showcases the interest of the French government in military purposes even before the return of De Gaulle. The report states that a total of more than 15–25 kilograms of plutonium were coming from Marcoule in mid-1959, effectively concluding that production should increase to 100 kilograms in 1960 and 550 kilograms by 1965. Despite France’s active nuclear research, the US intelligence reports that French capabilities were limited to weapons using plutonium as a primary material, while a second center at Pierrelate near Montelimar was under construction from mid-1957 with the objective of enriching U-235 to 3%.

The United States argues that the French research was unique (“almost completely native effort”) in that, unlike the British program, there was no support from the United States or Great Britain.

“Little information is available on actual French nuclear weapons research and development, and the principal scientists involved have never been identified. It is believed that the Department de Techniques Nouvelles (DTN) of the French Commissariat a l’Energie Atomique (CEA) has responsibility for the overall development of nuclear weapons.

The Centers at Bruyere-le-Chatel, Vaujours, Saclay, and Paris (Fort d’Issy) may be doing research and development on the non-nuclear components of nuclear weapons under or for the DTN.”[ 2]

The CIA states that from the inception of the research program in 1948 until 1955, the French government and citizens opposed to the possibility of a military use. It was only in 1952 (the beginning of the 5-year plan for nuclear energy) that research was stepped up, and around 1954 some members of the French Armed Forces considered nuclear weapons to be relevant in order to defend France.

In the European context, this change of mentality appeared at the very moment when the European Defence Community (EDC) project failed, leaving each country in Europe in charge of its own national defense and strengthening the role of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) on the continent. However, the Scientific Intelligence Report on “ The French Nuclear Weapons Program” (CIA/SI 47-59) makes no mention of the ECD and focuses on the events of 1956 with the Suez Canal and the Franco-British withdrawal from the Middle-East.

“Since General de Gaulle came to power in June 1958, his determination to increase French stature and independence in NATO and the increased feeling among military and government officials of the need for native nuclear deterrence to protect vital French interests have made it highly probable that France will proceed with the manufacture and testing of nuclear weapons regardless of any East-West test ban agreed upon the present nuclear powers.” [3]

In the light of these elements, the CIA argues that Paris wished to develop its nuclear program, on the one hand, because its influence in the Middle East was diminishing, and, on the other hand, with the aim of distancing itself from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the future [4].

Plutonium and uranium: CIA Analysis of Isotope Production, Extraction and Separation

The CIA points out that the development of French research was delayed due to technical problems and difficulties in acquiring certain components. Although chemical separation was achieved in July 1958, production was not sufficient until January 1959, and military plutonium was not available until the summer of 1959.

According to the CIA, Paris had its own national production of uranium and did not depend on imports [5]. France stored its production at Crousille, Vendee, Grury, Fores and—possibly—near the city of Vichy. The report does not fail to add the prospecting of French resources in order to obtain more uranium. There was thus an interest in West African territories, Algeria and Madagascar. In 1959, the CIA estimated French reserves at about 10,000 tons with a potential of up to 50,000 or even 100,000 tons.

“Present French production of uranium oxide amounts to 600 to 700 tonnes per year with a planned production of 1,000 tonnes by 1961, 2,500 tonnes by 1970, and 3,000 tonnes by 1975. Thus, France should be capable of meeting the uranium requirements of its planned reactor program from native sources.” [6]

Plutonium production

For the CIA, the construction of the first French nuclear reactor “Zoe” in 1948 had a dual civil and military objective, and it was not until 1952 that France decided to acquire plutonium in sufficient quantities to ensure the ambitions of its military nuclear program.

The report also gives details on production process, and, according to the CIA, the Marcoule facility has “three natural uranium, moderated graphite, gas cooled reactors, and a chemical separation plan”. The first G-1 reactor is said to have entered into service on 7 January 1956 with a level of 40 thermal megawatts similar to that of the U.S. Brookhaven. The reactor was running at 35 thermal megawatts only due to technical problems.

“The annual production of plutonium by the G-1 reactor was expected to be about 15 kilograms, but because it is operating at reduced power level, it is not expected that this proaction rate will be achieved. The first set of fuel rods were irradiated in G-1 during 1956-1957 and removed in December 1957. An experimental power generator was installed at G-1 by Electricite de France for the production of electricity. ” [7]

Scientific Intelligence Report on “ The French Nuclear Weapons Program” (CIA/SI 47-59)

The G-2 (1958) and G-3 (1959) reactors were based on a similar design and were cooled with pressurized carbon dioxide. Ultimately, production was expected to reach 150 thermal megawatts, resulting in the annual production of 40 kilograms of plutonium and 25 to 30 megawatts of electricity. In the light of the CIA report, we can see that there was a dual French ambition to develop its military program as well as increase civilian energy capabilities:

“The first French nuclear power station is under construction at Avoine, just north of Chinon. It is scheduled to start operating in 1960. This reactor, called EDF-1, is a graphite moderated, gas cooled reactor and will have an estimated output of 60 megawatts. Construction of additional power reactors is planned, and current goals calls for 850 MW of installed capacities by 1965.” [8]

Plutonium extraction

As in the case of plutonium production, extraction also seemed to be experiencing technical difficulties for unknown reasons (“the nature of the trouble is unknown”). The CIA gives details of how this works:

“It is a Purex-type solvent extraction plant for plutonium and uranium recovery. The overall process employs mixer-settlers and utilizes tribute phosphate as the solvent and nitric acid as the salting agent. The plutonium product is an oxalate salt that is converted to metal at an adjacent plutonium metal reduction facility.” [9]

Isotope separation

The Office of Scientific Intelligence claims that the first research on isotope separation began at Saclay in 1955, and in 1957 the first of two research centers was built:

“The first Saclay pilot plan was a 12-stages installation used to test gaseous diffusion barriers. Barriers could be tested in both tubular and flat shapes. The second plan at Saclay was larger and contained 16-stages of prototype cells of a type planned for the first full-scale plant.” [10]

In 1957, the French Commissariat à l’énergie atomique et aux énergies alternatives (CEA) saved more than 25 billion francs ($71,350,000) [11] for the construction of another isotope separation center. France had intended to involve EURATOM partners in this project, yet the Italians were the only ones to show interest with a possible participation of $20 million. France, therefore, decided to develop its own project in 1958, and the premises were to be located in Pierrelatte—between two hydroelectric centers close to the Rhone. In total, the French project would cost 55 billion francs.

French estimates suggest that the center was to be partially operational within three years and fully operational in four years to process a total of 350 tons of uranium per year and produce 500 to 700 kilograms of U-235 at 3%. According to the CIA, this would make it possible to increase energy production but would not be sufficient to develop military weapons.

CIA estimates on France’s first nuclear test

In the light of all these elements, the CIA argues that France wanted to acquire nuclear weapons within at least 4-5 years. In order to do so, Paris used the CEA in coordination with the National Defense, with the CIA mentioning the name of Mr. Laurent who heads the Centre d’Études de Bruyere-le-Chatelet near Arpajon:

“It has been reported that this center does theoretical and applied studies of the critical mass of nuclear explosion and prepared models of weapons.” [12]

The Service des Poudres and the Direction des Etudes et Fabrications d’Armements (DEFA) located at Fort d’Issy were in charge of research on detonators, while the section dealing with chemical research was located at St-Cloud. Professor Paul Chanson seemed to be an essential part of the research team.

However, the epicenter of nuclear research was located in Saclay (“the largest research center in the French nuclear program”). In addition, there was the Vaujours research center ( Centre d’Etudes de Vaujours) to the east of Paris, which was headed by Chief Engineer Barguillet [13].

For the CIA, the choice to acquire nuclear weapons was the consequence of De Gaulle’s policy (“After assuming power in 1958, General de Gaulle made it known that he was anxious for France to conduct a nuclear test as soon as possible”). The French research had to face difficulties in particular for the separation of the dirty plutonium [14].

The lack of access to the U-235 that could be supplied by the United States or Great Britain suggests that the first weapon would be of the implosion type. The CIA underlines France’s nuclear research was lacking behind Washington and London, while Moscow was not mentioned in the report at all. According to the report, Paris did not want to collaborate with the USA and the UK, while also rejecting a possible cooperation with the USSR. Overall, the 1959 report reinforces the idea of a French policy between the NATO and the Soviet Union.

In terms of estimates, the CIA envisages a first test around November 1959 in the Sahara Desert (26 42’N; 01 10’E) [15]. The person in charge of the center in the Sahara was a Colonel of the French Air Force, whose superior was Brigadier General Charles Ailleret. The choice of the Sahara is explained by the proximity of an airport in Aoulef to provide equipment to the military personnel.

The isolation of the Sahara was a deciding factor in France’s choice to carry out the first test, the CIA not developing its analysis on the Algerian population’s desire for autonomy, nor on the choice of having a member of the Air Force rather than the Ground Forces ( Armée de Terre) or the French Navy ( Marine Nationale) as the person in charge.

Conclusion on French geopolitics a few months before the first test

The first French Nuclear Test, “ Gerboise bleue”, was carried out on 13 February 1960 at 7.04 a.m. (Paris time) under the presidency of General de Gaulle. As predicted by the CIA in its scientific report, France joined the circle of nuclear powers alongside the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, France remained a nuclear power that lagged behind Washington and Moscow that had a better command of this technology.

The nuclear program will have a considerable influence on the European and international geopolitics. Firstly, obtaining nuclear weapons confirmed De Gaulle’s ambitions to move away from NATO. However, France’s nuclear capabilities did not allow it to be an alternative to the United States. Although it strengthened its strategic autonomy vis-à-vis Washington, Paris did not succeed in increasing its soft power in the French colonies, as shown by the CIA NSC Briefing (December 29, 1960):

“Radio Cairo couples French test with reports France aiding Israel in nuclear weapon production, and Arab League spokesman threatens possible severance political and economic relations with France.

Most African states strongly adverse.

Moroccan-sponsored African summit meeting on 3 January likely to provide forum for bitter denunciations of France.

Nkrumah has summoned “emergency” cabinet meeting for 30 December to consider new action against France” [16]

The French program appears to be more expensive than that of the UK, as another CIA report shows [17], and the environmental consequences were also problematic. In 2013, the French Ministry of Armed Forces declassified map of contaminated areas showing the affected areas, as far as the sub-Saharan zone.

In Europe, far from strengthening cooperation between countries, France’s choice pushes countries, such as Germany, to move closer to NATO, thus burying any possibility of a European Defense Community. Internationally, the US Army criticized the French nuclear program because it suggested that other countries could follow the example set by France. According to Lieutenant-Colonel Warner Farr in a report to the USAF Counterproliferation Center, “Progress in nuclear science and technology in France and Israel remained closely linked throughout the early fifties... There were several Israeli observers at the French Nuclear Tests and the Israelis had “unrestricted access to French Nuclear Test explosion data”.

Five months after Gerboise bleue, the Soviet Union reacted by breaking its moratorium on atmospheric tests, settled de facto since late 1958 with the United States and the United Kingdom. The USSR carried out numerous improvement tests, starting in September 1961 with a series of 136 large H-bombs. This series included the most powerful bomb ever tested, the 50-megaton (50,000 kt) Tsar bomb over Novaya Zemlya.

After the USSR, the United States reactivated its own atmospheric test program with a series of 40 explosions from April 1962 to November 1962. This series included two powerful H-bombs of 7.45 Mt and 8.3 Mt.

The People’s Republic of China launched its own military nuclear program as well, testing the A596 (22 kt) bomb on October 16, 1964, and the H6 bomb (3.3 Mt) on June 17, 1967.

In conclusion, the CIA’s analysis shows that France’s choice to develop own nuclear military capabilities began in the context of the crisis in Europe that had to do with the failure of the European Defense Community project, combined with France’s loss of power in its colonies and internationally.

The French nuclear program would be more expensive than that of the United States and Great Britain [18], destabilizing the European continent and NATO in general, without restoring the prestige desired by General de Gaulle because France would not be able to compete with the United States and the USSR.

“De Gaulle views France and the US as competitors for the leadership of Europe. Most of his recent policy initiatives, intended to enhance the position of France, have widened the areas of difference between France and the US and weakened the fabric of unity in the Western Alliance, but they have not as yet brought him nearer his goal of European leadership.”

For the CIA, the success of the French nuclear program is the development of nuclear energy for the civil sector which will ensure national economic recovery and affordable electricity prices for French companies during the trente glorieuses more than the military outcome itself.

Bibliography

CIA General CIA Records (January 4, 1954). French Writer’s Survey of USSR Nuclear Research and Development. CIA-RDP80-00809A000700150545-9

CIA NSC Briefing (November 10, 1959). French A-Test Plans. CIA-RDP79R00890A001100110013-9

CIA Scientific Intelligence Report (November 19, 1959). The French Nuclear Weapons Program. CIA/SI 47-59

CIA NSC Briefing (December 29, 1960). French Nuclear Test.

CIA Current Support Brief (May 23, 1963). Mounting Costs of the French Nuclear Program. CIA/RR CB 63-50

CIA Special Report (May 31, 1963). The French Nuclear Strike Force Program. OCI Number 0282/63B.

CIA National Intelligence Estimate (June 2, 1965). French Foreign Policy. NIE 22-65

CIA intelligence Brief (November 1965). French Nuclear and Conventional Forces in the 1966 Military Budget. CIA/RR 65-69

CIA Memorandum (May 26, 1969). French and British Nuclear Submarine Costs. CIA-RDP 80B01439R000500170010-0

CIA Intelligence Memorandum (June 1971). Expenditures on the French Nuclear Program. ER IM 71-107

CIA General CIA Records (June 24, 1974). French Nuclear Test series Encountering Delays. CIA-RDP78S01932A000100060016-5

CIA Intelligence Assessment (May 1985). French Underground Nuclear Testing: Environmentally Safe and Likely to Continue. SW 85-10066

1. CIA National Intelligence Estimate (June 2, 1965).French Foreign Policy. NIE 22-65

2. CIA Scientific Intelligence Report (November 19, 1959).The French Nuclear Weapons Program. CIA/SI 47-59

3. CIA Scientific Intelligence Report (November 19, 1959).The French Nuclear Weapons Program. CIA/SI 47-59

4. CIA Scientific Intelligence Report (November 19, 1959).The French Nuclear Weapons Program. CIA/SI 47-59

5. CIA Scientific Intelligence Report (November 19, 1959).The French Nuclear Weapons Program. CIA/SI 47-59

6. CIA Scientific Intelligence Report (November 19, 1959).The French Nuclear Weapons Program. CIA/SI 47-59

7. CIA Scientific Intelligence Report (November 19, 1959).The French Nuclear Weapons Program. CIA/SI 47-59

8. CIA Scientific Intelligence Report (November 19, 1959).The French Nuclear Weapons Program. CIA/SI 47-59

9. CIA Scientific Intelligence Report (November 19, 1959).The French Nuclear Weapons Program. CIA/SI 47-59

10. CIA Scientific Intelligence Report (November 19, 1959).The French Nuclear Weapons Program. CIA/SI 47-59

11. 1 franc = $0.002853

13. CIA Scientific Intelligence Report (November 19, 1959). The French Nuclear Weapons Program. CIA/SI 47-59

13. CIA Scientific Intelligence Report (November 19, 1959). The French Nuclear Weapons Program. CIA/SI 47-59

14. CIA Scientific Intelligence Report (November 19, 1959). The French Nuclear Weapons Program. CIA/SI 47-59

15. CIA Scientific Intelligence Report (November 19, 1959).The French Nuclear Weapons Program. CIA/SI 47-59

16. CIA NSC Briefing (December 29, 1960).French Nuclear Test.

17. CIA Special Report (May 31, 1963). The French Nuclear Strike Force Program. OCI Number 0282/63B (released in 2006).

18. “The French nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SLBM) program will coast about four times as much as the comparable british program” in CIA Current Support Brief (May 23, 1963).Mounting Costs of the French Nuclear Program. CIA/RR CB 63-50

19. CIA National Intelligence Estimate (June 2, 1965).French Foreign Policy. NIE 22-65, Page 1


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