TechFrance to resume tritium production for nuclear weapons capability

France to resume tritium production for nuclear weapons capability

Nuclear explosion.
Nuclear explosion.
Images source: © Getty Images | RomoloTavani
3:53 PM EDT, March 21, 2024

On March 18, French Armed Forces Minister Sébastien Lecornu announced that France would resume the production of tritium, a key component in the manufacture of thermonuclear weapons. This production will utilize two civilian reactors operated by the energy giant, EDF. Here's why tritium is vital for thermonuclear weapons.

According to a press release from the French Ministry of Defense, the Civaux nuclear power plant, located in southwestern France, will not see its electricity generation capabilities impacted by the tritium production process. Instead, the production will be hosted by the Commissariat à l'énergie atomique (CEA), France's leading nuclear research facility.

This decision marks the result of over 25 years of negotiation between the French Ministry of Defense and EDF, aiming to compensate for the 2009 shutdown of two reactors at Marcoule, southeastern France, previously dedicated to tritium production.

The Role of Tritium in Thermonuclear Weapons

Tritium, a hydrogen isotope with one proton and two neutrons, is extremely scarce in nature and is effectively obtained through exposure of lithium to the intense radiation in a reactor core. Extracting tritium from the irradiated materials poses significant storage challenges due to its instability and a half-life of 12 years, necessitating a continual production process.

While tritium finds its use in various applications, such as illuminating watch dials, keyrings, and firearm sights, its critical role in enabling nuclear fusion makes it indispensable for nuclear weapons. Modern nuclear arsenals rely on thermonuclear warheads for their colossal destructive capacity, which can be packed into a relatively small device. Unlike fission bombs that rely on the splitting of uranium or plutonium nuclei, thermonuclear weapons derive their power from the fusion of hydrogen isotopes under extreme conditions, creating helium and releasing enormous energy.

Initiating such a powerful fusion reaction requires an initial nuclear explosion, yet this trigger accounts for only a minor fraction of the weapon’s overall yield. The most powerful thermonuclear bomb tested, the Tsar Bomba, boasted a 50-megaton yield but was deemed too impractical for combat. As such, militaries typically deploy less potent but strategically useful warheads in greater numbers.

France, for instance, maintains an arsenal of 290 warheads, categorized into strategic and tactical weapons. The strategic arsenal includes TN 75 warheads with a 150 kt yield and tactical TN-81 warheads with a variable yield between 150-300 kt. The strategic warheads are deployed on Le Triomphant class submarines equipped with intercontinental ballistic missiles of the M45 or M51 families, capable of carrying up to 10 MIRV sub-warheads aimed at diverse targets over distances of 5,000-6,200 miles.

Tactical warheads, on the other hand, are mounted on ASMP-A cruise missiles that have a reach of up to 311 miles and are carried by the versatile Rafale aircraft.

Related content