After further review, the new joint UK-France nuclear weapons stockpile stewardship effort is little less effing baffling than before.

We now have the full text of the Treaty between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the French Republic relating to Joint Radiographic/Hydrodynamics Facilities, and the details are much more clear.

And, as it turns out, the details have something to do with the French comic book character, Asterix.

First, the lawyer stuff.

Before we get to the details in the treaty text, I should note that the United States and France, in 1996, updated their defense cooperation agreement to permit much more detailed sharing of stockpile stewardship information. I was aware of the old agreement — circumvented by the Nixon Administration and updated during the Reagan, as detailed in the late Richard Ullman’s wonderful The Covert French Connection — but not the new one.

Here is how Jeff Smith described the new agreement the Washington Post in 1996:

France and the United States have signed a secret agreement drawing their nuclear weapons scientists into a much closer alliance, so that each nation can help the other maintain its nuclear arsenal after an expected international treaty bans all test explosions, according to U.S. and diplomatic officials.

In what officials said was the most novel provision of the agreement, the United States will share with France for the first time a vast amount of computer data drawn from simulated explosions of the atomic bombs at the heart of all modern U.S. warheads. Weapons information of this quality is considered so sensitive it has been shared with only one U.S. ally, Britain.

Washington’s decision to share the data, after more than two years of negotiation with Paris, was described by one diplomatic official as a symbol of the Clinton administration’s enthusiasm for the regime of French President Jacques Chirac. Others said it is also a reflection of Washington’s strong belief that assuring the continued reliability of the French strategic nuclear deterrent is strongly in the U.S. interest.

To avoid stirring public controversy or offending national pride on either side of the Atlantic, however, neither country sought any publicity. The accord was signed June 4 by four senior U.S. and French officials, including Assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Defense Harold Smith and Assistant Secretary of Energy Victor Reis, in a private office building in Rosslyn.

It was pretty obvious to everyone at the time that opened the door for France to use NIF, DARHT and other facilities, as well as freeing the UK to share more data with France.  So, part of why I told Geoff Brumfield that I was “effing baffled” is explained by the fact that I didn’t realize that US-France agreement had been so substantially updated.


Now, where does Asterix come in?

The name of the joint UK-France program is TEUTATES — which is a reference to a Celtic god worshiped in ancient Britain and Gaul.  Clever, no?  Chances are that, if you know Teutates at all, it is with the spelling Toutatis — which the French comic character Asterix uses as “Par Toutatis!” in the same sense one might say “By Jove!”

(There is one other possibility.  Our tiny planet nearly — in the interplanetary sense of “nearly” — got creamed by the asteroid 4179 Toutatis in September 2004.  But it would be unkind to suggest that the project name implies that the Brits and French have sought the last refuge of scoundrels who attempt to justify nuclear weapons research: asteroid diversion.)

I digress.

Project TEUTATES will have two components: TEUTATES ÉPURE, the radiographc/hydrodynamics facility at Valduc in France, and TEUTATES TDC, the Technology Development Center at Aldermaston.  After talking to some colleagues, and reading the treaty text, I now have some sense of the scope and operation of the two facilities.

1. ÉPURE: The joint radiographic/hydrodynamics facility (Valduc, France)

ÉPURE remains the more interesting of the two facilities, at least to me. The name is not an acronym; An épure is a model from which something is built.  It nicely captures of the simulation mission of the radiographic/hydrodynamics facility.  France will move the “radiographic machine” (the accelerator, etc.) from AIRIX in Moronvilliers to Valduc, near Dijon, in 2014.  Together, the UK and France will install a second axis in 2019 and a third in 2022.

If the legal environment for US-France nuclear cooperation (and, hence UK-France cooperation) is much more permissive than I realized, the UK and France will nevertheless make heroic efforts to maintain information barriers.  I joked to Geoff Brumfield that “Unless you say ‘On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays only French are allowed in the building, and on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays only Brits and we all take Sunday off to have a party,’ I don’t know how you don’t share information.”

That turns out not to be far from the truth –Article 5 of the treaty text provides for physically separate areas within the facility manned solely by national personnel (ie, only Brits in the UK area) and permits each side to undertake nuclear weapons work “without scrutiny” of the other.  No word on whether the Brits insisted their half of the cafeteria carry only truly awful food. Scotch Egg anyone?

2. Technology Development Center (Aldermaston, UK)

The UK and France will also stand up a “Technology Development Center” or TDC at Aldermaston that will, as the name suggests, allow France and the UK to jointly develop technologies and systems for the site at Valduc.  No work with fissile material will be done at this site.

This, by the way, is unintentional comedy just waiting to happen.  For those of you who have visited AWE, can you imagine what happens when a bunch of French scientists drop by the Soldier’s Return and ask for the wine list? I want to see that scene so badly that I would almost consider moving to Basingstoke.  Almost.  Except, as a taxi driver told the Mighty Sheff and me, Basingstoke is a sh*thole.

One thing that jumps out at me is how much of this is simply the UK committing to assist in an expansion of the planned French program — France is paying for all the Phase 1, which they were apparently planning to undertake in any event.

Another thing is that Phase 2 of the construction schedule  provides for construction of a second firing point by 2022 — with a waste processing facility.  ÉPURE needs a waste processing facility because AWE likes to conduct hydrodynamic tests (or what we might call dynamic experiments) with plutonium 242, a non-fissile isotope of plutonium. (This way the implosion is identical to a real nuclear weapon, without the nuclear explosion part.) AWE explained that a waste processing capability was necessary for Project Hydrus because “Radioactive plutonium will be used in some of the tests conducted in the facility, and so radioactively contaminated wastes will be generated …”

Does this mean the French don’t use Pu 242? Perhaps, not.  A cursory look suggests they use depleted uranium. After 2022, who knows?

The US, on the other hand, conducted some tests using Pu 242.  The US also planned to do a small number of dynamic experiments using plutonium at DARHT, but as far as I can tell hasn’t done so. According to the Nuclear Weapons Complex Infrastructure Task Force, “LANL has not yet received permission to perform dynamic experiments, which it has been seeking for many years.”  The problem is that dynamic experiments involve plutonium, which Jon Medalia makes more clear in his CRS summary of the Task Force Report.

The US has previously used UK facilities for Pu 242 tests when the US regulatory environment proved unwelcoming (see the remarks of Stanley Orman, former AWE Deputy Director at 30:00), which leads me to wonder whether the residents of Dijon might not notice a slight uptick in tourists wearing baseball caps and speaking with flat accents around 2022. Dude, don’t forget to try the mustard.

A Note on Asterix

As some of you know, I have a real book obsession.  When I visited the CEA facilities at Pierlatte and Marcoule, I learned that the nuclear reactor in a Tintin comic, Objectif Lune, was modeled on the G1 reactor at Marcoule.  I made sure to pick up a copy at a bookstore in Aix.

This book — Astérix et les Centrales Nucléaires — caught my attention.  One source suggested it was an unauthorized Asterix comic, but I would love to get a copy of it.  Anybody know anything about it?  Did CEA use Asterix in a campaign?