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13 February 2012

On this day in history: First French nuclear explosive test, 1960

The French have a long association with nuclear research since the days of Marie Curie. In 1945 the French government created the Commissariat à l’énergie atomique (CEA) - the French Atomic Energy Commission - under the direction of the Nobel laureate Jean Frédéric Joliot-Curie. Nevertheless, Joliot-Curie's communist sympathies resulted in him being removed from his position before the beginning of the nuclear power programme in the 1950s.

In 1956 a secret committee met to review the possible military applications for atomic energy. Work began on delivery systems for nuclear weapons, but another year passed before President René Coty authorised the creation of the Centre Saharien d'Expérimentations Militaires (C.S.E.M.) - a military research facility in what was then the French Sahara. In 1958 the newly installed President Charles de Gaulle gave the final authorisation for France to develop a nuclear bomb, only the fourth country to do so after the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom.

At 7.04am on 12th February 1960 the scientists at C.S.E.M. conducted their first nuclear explosive test, codenamed Gerboise Bleue ("blue jerboa" - a jerboa is desert rodent). The scientists had mounted the pure fission plutonium implosion device on a 105 meter high tower near Reganne in the desert of Tanezrouf (now in Algeria). The resultant explosion was the most powerful first nuclear test by any nation with a yield of seventy kilotons. They conducted two other tests of much smaller devices in April and December of that year codenamed Gerboise Blanche and Gerboise Rouge - making up the three colours of the tricolore. In April 1961 the scientists detonated the final bomb in the programme, Gerboise Verte.

Footage of the
Gerboise Bleue fireball.

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