UK and France extend warhead research collaboration into new areas

The UK and France will dramatically extend co-operation on nuclear warhead physics research under a new agreement reached by Prime Minister David Cameron and President François  Hollande at their January 2014 summit at RAF Brize Norton.

The new agreement builds on arrangements for collaboration which were agreed between the two nations in 2010, when a treaty allowing co-operation on nuclear warhead research was signed as part of a wider UK – France Defence and Security Co-operation Treaty.  Under the new arrangements co-operation and information sharing will now take place over a far wider range of scientific matters than was specified in the 2010 nuclear treaty.

The declaration issued after the summit announced that France and the UK will conduct joint research at the 'Orion' nuclear test laser at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) Aldermaston and the 'Laser Megajoule' (LMJ) at the Commissariat à l'Énergie Atomique – Direction des Applications Militaires (CEA-DAM) Cesta site near Bordeaux.  Technical and scientific information underpinning warhead testing will also be shared to allow peer review and joint research by weapons scientists from each country.

“There is no greater evidence of the value we both attach to the bilateral relationship than our willingness to work together in this most sensitive area”, according to the declaration,

The new co-operation arrangements will assist AWE in work on developing a successor to the current Trident nuclear warhead and may allow the establishment's scientists to benefit from recent work in developing France's new Tête Nucléaire Océanique (TNO) nuclear warhead, which is scheduled to enter into service next year.  No formal decision has yet been taken by the UK government on whether the existing Trident warhead design will be refurbished or replaced.  However, work is currently under way at AWE to inform the decision and up to 30 November 2012 a sum of £54.6 million had been spent on such studies. 

AWE's Orion laser became fully operational in April 2013 and in December CEA announced that the Laser Megajoule had conducted its first experiment.  High powered superlasers such as Orion and the Laser Megajoule allow researchers to conduct experiments which subject warhead materials and components to immense temperatures, with the results used to model how a nuclear warhead would behave as it exploded.  Such experiments have become increasingly important to nuclear-armed states following agreement of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, which prohibits the underground 'live' testing of nuclear weapons.  Non-government organisations have raised concerns that the experiments provide a way for nuclear-armed states to side-step their obligations under the Treaty.

The Laser Megajoule and Orion operate under different temperature and pressure regimes, meaning that co-operation between the UK and France will allow the two governments to collectively conduct experiments over a wider range of experimental conditions than they would alone.  AWE and CEA are both also collaborating on laser experiments with the USA's Lawrence Livermore nuclear weapons laboratory, where the National Ignition Facility superlaser is located.

In 2010 the UK and France signed a landmark treating to allow co-operation on warhead hydrodynamics research – the study of the behaviour of warhead materials, components, and assemblies at extremely high pressures – and embarked upon 'Project Teutates', a joint programme to construct new hydrodynamics research and diagnostic facilities.

The Brize Norton agreement allows the Teutates project to be extended by “taking benefice of the refurbishment of a facility located in Aldermaston”.  Spending at Aldermaston will complement work undertaken on 'Epure', a brand new hydrodynamics facility intended for joint use which is currently under construction at the CEA-DAM site at Valduc in Eastern France.  The summit communiqué announces that “excellent progress” has been made with development of the Epure facility and that final national investment approvals for the facility were recently signed off by the two governments.

Under the Teutates arrangements a representative of CEA has been seconded to AWE and there are “numerous” visits from CEA employees and contractors, according to the answer to a Parliamentary Question given by Philip Dunne, Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology, in November 2012.  The  minister also stated that “no arrangements had been made with the French Government on French experimental involvement in the Orion laser facility at AWE”.

As well as outlining future co-operation in laser physics and hydrodynamics, the summit communiqué also mentions other areas of future collaboration on nuclear weapon programmes between the UK and France.  The two governments will work together on the development of energetic materials for nuclear weapons and co-operation is underway “at the system and sub-system level” on nuclear-powered submarines, including on sonar and electrical power systems, with future potential to work more closely on environmental control equipment and reach an agreement on reciprocal secure use of research facilities.

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