Jeffrey LewisReport on French Nuclear Testing


I’ve never seen a classified French document before, but this one is a doozy.

Bruno Barrillot —who I have just discovered has written a lot about French nuclear testing, how did I miss this? — somehow obtained, and published, a confidential history of France’s nuclear program, entitled Report on French Nuclear Testing (1960-1996). It appears this is Volume 1: Organizational Genesis and Experiments in Sahara. Presumably there is a second volume for the period after testing moved to the South Pacific in 1968.

Barrillot released the document as part of the push for his book, Victimes des essais nucléaires: histoire
d’un combat
, on France’s atomic veterans. Nicolas Jacquard in Le Parisien writes:

Intitulé : « la Genèse de l’organisation et les expérimentations au Sahara », ce texte rédigé par un ou des militaires anonymes daterait de 1998, juste après l’abandon définitif des essais par Jacques Chirac. Il y évoque avec emphase « une grande aventure scientifique », tout en jugeant « inopportun d’en extraire une synthèse grand public. » A sa lecture, on comprend aisément pourquoi, chaque ligne du rapport expliquant comment scientifiques et militaires veulent, à l’époque, obtenir « la bombe », quel que soit le prix à payer, y compris humain. Gerboise verte, le quatrième et dernier tir dans l’atmosphère, fait ainsi jouer les appelés du contingent à une véritable guerre nucléaire grandeur nature. Souvent, les vétérans se plaignaient d’avoir été des cobayes. C’est désormais une certitude.

Quant aux « faibles doses » reçues qu’évoque le ministre de la Défense, elles sont à l’origine de maladies irréversibles. « Que dans le contexte de l’époque, on fasse des manoeuvres, on peut en discuter, résume Patrice Bouveret. Mais que tout cela soit fait sans aucune prise en compte sociale ou médicale des hommes, c’est quasi criminel. »

The important phrases here are “cobayes” (guinea pigs) and “quasi criminel” (almost criminal).

But the document is also fascinating from an historical perspective, providing information about the early French nuclear program.

Check it out.


  1. George William Herbert (History)

    It seems to be very operationally focused on the testing operations and tests themselves, not on the devices tested (other than yields, and in a few cases the fissile core material).

    However, my French is more than a decade out of regular practice, and I just skimmed the document relatively rapidly and didn’t try to read the whole thing yet.

    Very interesting.

  2. scud

    Neither the info nor the wild accusations are new. What Barrillot fails to mention is that there was a full report by the MoD on the topic in 2007. It gave precise values about the doses received by the soldiers during the exercise. To claim, as Le Parisien does, they were the cause of “irreversible diseases” runs, I believe, counter to pretty much everything we know about low doses.

    The dossier is here:

  3. Gridlock (History)

    Zut alors!

    Now, where’s the equivalent South African document…

  4. Mark (History)

    Hey Jeffrey, it was fun to see you on Olbermann the other night. Of course, I’ve only seen your blog avatar, so I’m not 100% sure it was you. Especially since they had you talking about nuclear power, which is apparently outside of your area of expertise, based on what you and Keith were saying. Or maybe I just couldn’t hear you? 😉

  5. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    I spend more time on power than the blog suggests. Honestly, I don’t find it very interesting, which is why I don’t blog about it.

    I don’t hate nuclear power, but absent the courage to push through Yucca Mountain (or alternative storage schemes, which I tend to prefer) it seems irresponsible to me to try to build new reactors.

    And, I also get annoyed when advocates oversell the safety and environmental benefits.

  6. Rwendland (History)

    Found a short 1960 French newsreel on the bomb program that may interest: La bombe française : le jour J à Reggane (4min 38s).

  7. Robert Merkel (History)

    Jeffrey, can I please ask on what basis you claim that “advocates oversell the safety and environmental benefits.”?

    Do you not accept mainstream scientific opinion, as represented by the IPCC, on the scientific basis and likely consequences of continued greenhouse emissions?

    Do you believe that the life cycle greenhouse emissions of nuclear power are not radically lower than those from fossil fuel power?

    Or do you think that there are ample viable, cheap, non-emitting alternatives to fossil fuel and nuclear power that it’s really not a big deal whether more nuclear power is built or not?

    I understand that your area of interest and enthusiasm is arms control, not the global environment. But the fact is that a lot of people (including myself) see climate change as an existential threat at least equal in seriousness to nuclear proliferation. So I’d like to gain a better understanding of where you’re coming from on this.

  8. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    I share your concern about greenhouse emissions as an existential threat.

    Advocates are being inaccurate in saying that nuclear power plants are emissions free. There are significant emissions that result from the fuel cycle (mining, processing, converting and enriching uranium) as well as constructing the reactor itself and, eventually, decommissioning it.

    I think I’ve seen exactly one study that attempts to create a full life-cycle carbon footprint for power generation. As I recall, nuclear power is significantly better than fossil fuels, but not clearly better than what used to be called renewables.

    So that raises second order questions about environmental impact (is storing nuclear waste less harmful than damming rivers?), feasibility (Can we scale solar power up? Could windpower meet meet baseload demand), and (in the case of nuclear power) safety and proliferation.

    I say that I am not reflexively opposed to nuclear power because I recognize that energy generation is basically a dirty business. I grew up in Illinois surrounded by a bunch of nuclear power plants, so I recognize that it has benefits.

    But most of the nuclear power advocates I meet in Washington oversell these benefits in a way that irks me.

    Opponents fear monger as well. A left-of-center policy magazine killed a good article I was writing on the grounds that I was too pro-nuclear power for wanting to create sensible international fuel-cycle arrangements. I have lots of concerns about nuclear power in the United States but I don’t, for example, oppose creation of an IAEA fuel bank or the UAE 123 Agreement.

    My interview was shortened by the technical difficulties, but what I wanted to communicate is this: If the Obama Administration put together a comprehensive energy strategy that identified gaps where a limited deployment of nuclear power was the preferred alternative, that wouldn’t alarm me. Indeed, I would applaud them were they to put some effort into trying to figure out what to do about Yucca Mountain as part of such a strategy.

    But this was a pointless moment of political posturing.

  9. Robert Merkel (History)

    Sorry, I didn’t see your TV interview – I’m an Aussie.

    In any case, you might be interested in some of the documents from this 2006 Australian government study, one of which extensively surveys the literature on life cycle emissions.

    Nuclear and renewables have roughly equivalent life cycle emissions. As to second-order issues, I’m far less sanguine than you seem to be about the ability of renewables (or “clean coal”) to supply sufficient energy at an affordable cost on a global scale in a timely manner.

    In any case, I’d suggest that the intersection of climate change mitigation and nuclear arms control is an important and urgent issue to consider.

    Any chance of a blog post on this point?

  10. loupgarous (History)

    “Low doses” of polonium-210 have killed several researchers, starting with Irène Joliot-Curie, then several staffers at Israel’s Weizmann Institute, culminating in the Russian hit on Aleksandr Litvinenko.

    To say that “low doses” of nuclear fallout are innocuous is meaningless unless the types of isotopes falling on the victims and the mode of exposure (external or ingestion) are known.

    A ground burst of a thermonuclear warhead taking up large amounts of neutron-activated silicon or aluminum from the soil and pushing them into the mushroom cloud, where they can be carried far, could supply some “low doses” of radionuclides that would be lethal if ingested through breathing or contamination of food or water.

    Then again (speaking of “clean coal” as Robert Merkel is), coal traditionally has emitted radionuclides in its ash that would probably have caused license trouble if they were emitted by a nuclear power plant. If contributions to the radionuclide burden of the Earth were the true issue behind the dislike of the left for nuclear power, they’d have agitated against coal harder and longer ago than they have. The left has, by preventing the building of new nuclear power plants here in America since 1980, probably caused more radioactivity to be released into the environment than would otherwise have happened.