Australian news, and some related international items

A new window into France’s nuclear history

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists By Austin R. Cooper | September 16, 2022, Access to French nuclear archives has increased dramatically during the past year. Since October 2021, French officials have declassified thousands of documents about the development of French nuclear weapons, an arsenal of roughly 300 warheads today.

This work marks a sea change in France, for decades one of the most difficult nuclear-armed democracies to study. Unlike the United States and the United Kingdom, France does not have Freedom of Information laws, which allow the public to file declassification requests. French archives do consider special access requests (dérogations), but these requests cannot compel a declassification review, which limits their utility in making nuclear weapons documents available for research.

French President Emmanuel Macron, in the wake of prize-nominated journalism and scholarship on the development of French nuclear weapons, launched a significant declassification initiative last year. This process has focused on Polynesia, the semi-autonomous French territory where French forces conducted nearly 200 atmospheric and underground explosions from 1966 to 1996. The scope does not include Algeria, the former French colony where French authorities built and operated their first nuclear test sites between 1960 and 1966, during the Algerian War for Independence (1954–62) and the construction of the postcolonial Algerian state.

New French transparency could help settle debates about environmental contamination and health effects from radiation exposure, especially in Polynesia. French law has promised to compensate victims of French nuclear weapons development who become sick or die from radiation-linked illness but has made only slow progress since 2010. Other nuclear-armed democracies, including the United States and the United Kingdom, have established similar compensation programs.

…………………………. Yet crucial gaps remain in access to French nuclear archives, especially records from the earliest years of the weapons testing program—when it took place in Algeria—and records concerning foreign affairs.

………………………. A report in February 2022 indicated that Macron’s declassification review had withdrawn only 59 documents out of nearly 35,000.

The global stakes. French nuclear history does not only concern France. France became the world’s fourth nuclear weapon state by building test sites and conducting atmospheric and underground explosions in two former French colonies: Algeria and then Polynesia. These blasts drew criticism from Algerian and Polynesian leaders, and from many neighboring countries in Africa and the Pacific.

Before becoming one of the world’s top nonproliferation cops, France served as a global nuclear supplier. During the Cold War arms race, the French government was among those that provided IsraelIndiaSouth AfricaIran, and Iraq with nuclear technologies. Except for possibly Iran, all these states endeavored to build nuclear weapons; so far, only Iraq has failed to do so.

……………………. President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger secretly reversed US policy and launched unprecedented Franco-American cooperation on weapons design and safety procedures.

………………………………… . The publication in March 2021 of the French-language book Toxique, by the physicist Sébastien Philippe and investigative journalist Tomas Statius, created a media firestorm surrounding French nuclear history.

Toxique showed that French authorities underestimated and overlooked the extent of radioactive contamination—and the health risks—from the atmospheric explosions conducted in Polynesia until 1974. This finding relied on dozens of French documents declassified in 2012–13, following a decade of court battles fought by associations of nuclear test victims and anti-nuclear organizations.

……………………………………………….. Limits to French nuclear transparency. Recent French declassifications indicate real progress, but three shortcomings have become clear.

First, archival documentation of France’s first nuclear explosions in the Algerian Sahara (1960–66) falls outside the Declassification Commission’s mandate. This recent work, as well as the CEA-DAM process, have incidentally declassified a few documents about the two test sites in the Algerian desert. But most of these records remain unavailable for research.

This split in French nuclear history—between Algeria and Polynesia—is artificial. Similar French entities, and often the same French officials, directed the Algerian and Polynesian sites.

The reason for French transparency about the Polynesian sites, but not the Algerian ones, stems from French politics. Polynesia, and its semi-autonomous government, are part of France. Algeria won its independence in a bloody war of decolonization that coincided with the first French nuclear explosions. Algeria remains a touchy subject in France……………………………………………………….

Insights from the archives. French President Macron’s shift in declassification policy opens a new window into the development of French nuclear weapons. Researchers can now look to France for resources to understand the nuclear dimensions of European security during a moment when these dimensions have become all too obvious.

What makes France so important? Now the only nuclear weapon state in the European Union, France’s nuclear history has key quirks. It also has global reach.

In contrast to their British neighbors, French officials endeavored to build their nuclear weapons program as independently of the United States as possible. Franco-American technological cooperation improved during the Cold War, but Paris remained committed to charting its own strategic course. France provides a case study of trying to go it alone.

The French case also demonstrates deep entanglement with French colonial policies in Africa and the Pacific. A similar point holds true for the US use of the Marshall Islands as a nuclear test site and tribal lands for uranium mining, or for UK nuclear testing in Australia. As the only country not merely to plan but actually to conduct nuclear explosions on the African continent, and given the longevity of its nuclear presence in the Pacific, France offers a unique vantage point on broader intersections between the Cold War arms race and decolonization struggles.

French nuclear archives have as much to do with today’s politics as with 20th-century history. Macron’s policy shift demonstrates the impact of executive action and the power of civil society to shape nuclear weapons governance when researchers, journalists, activists, and other stakeholders work together. The French case has unique features—namely the legal status of Polynesia—but it holds broad lessons for nuclear-armed democracies.

Building on recent strides, the French declassification effort can expand in ways that do not threaten nonproliferation goals. Two places to start: documentation of the Algerian test sites and the rich nuclear collections in the Diplomatic Archives.

September 15, 2022 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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