UK – France co-operation on nuclear weapons set to deepen as France’s Laser Mégajoule becomes operational

The first experimental firing of France's new nuclear test superlaser took place at the end of October, allowing French – and British – nuclear weapons scientists to test warhead components and materials as part of research work aimed at sidestepping international arms control measures.

On 23 October Prime Minister Manuel Valls triggered the first experimental firing of France's Laser  Mégajoule at an inauguration ceremony at the Commissariat à l'Énergie Atomique – Direction des Applications Militaires (CEA-DAM) Cesta site at Le Barp, Gironde.

Under recently agreed co-operation arrangements, scientists from the UK's Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) will be able to undertake research work at the Laser Mégajoule alongside their French colleagues.

In 2010 the UK and France signed the 'Teutates' treaty, which has enabled the joint development of facilities to undertake research into nuclear warhead hydrodynamics, and in January 2014 the two nations agreed to extend co-operation to allow joint research at the Laser Mégajoule and the Orion nuclear test laser at AWE Aldermaston.

High powered superlasers such as Orion and the Laser Mégajoule allow researchers to conduct experiments which subject warhead materials and components to pressures and temperatures similar to those encountered during a nuclear test, generating results which can be 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 Mégajoule 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-DAM are both also collaborating on laser experiments with the USA's Lawrence Livermore nuclear weapons laboratory, where the National Ignition Facility superlaser is located.

Inauguration of the Laser Mégajoule marks the culmination of a ten year construction project costing 3 billion Euros following completion of a smaller prototype project at Cesta – construction of the smaller scale Ligne d'Integration Laser.  However, the project has been prone to delays and technical problems.  The first Laser Mégajoule beam shots were planned for the beginning of 2014, but in January the Defence Ministry announced that they had been postponed until December.

The Laser Mégajoule is the most powerful laser in Europe in terms of energy delivered, operating in a higher energy band than AWE's Orion superlaser and at a comparable energy level to the USA's National Ignition Facility.

The Laser Mégajoule, together with the Franco-British Epure hydrodynamic testing facility at the Valduc nuclear site near Dijon, will play a pivotal role in allowing France to continue experimental and developmental work on nuclear weapons in the absence of underground nuclear testing.

In 1996 then President Jacques Chirac decided to end France's nuclear weapons test programme following a controversial series of tests at Muruoa Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, and announced that France would sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.  France ratified the Treaty in 1998.  

However, since then the French government has been pursuing a 'Simulation' programme with the aim of developing the capability to evaluate the reliability of its nuclear weapons and develop new warheads using experimental and modelling techniques.  

During the inauguration ceremony Prime Minister Valls announced that, with the commissioning of the Laser Mégajoule and the entry into service of the Epure hydrodynamics facility at the end of the year, the Simulation programme is now fully operational.

“France is the first country in the world for which the 'Simulation' approach has guaranteed the operation of a new thermonuclear weapon”, he said.  “Henceforth we head the race for deterrent technologies”.

The Prime Minister stated that so far only France and the USA have managed to build the nuclear test lasers necessary for such work, although China and Russia have recently begun to address the challenge.

Prime Minister Valls' inauguration of the Laser Mégajoule took place just a few days before Prince Andrew, the Duke of York visited the Orion laser facility at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at the beginning of November.  The Duke's visit marked the International Year of Light 2015 – a United Nations initiative to raise awareness of light science and its applications.

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