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U.S. Closely Linked with French Nuclear Weapons Development

By William Drozdiak and R. Jeffrey Smith
The Washington Post

When President Clinton traveled to Hawaii early this month to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the end of the war in the Pacific, his aides dispatched an urgent message to the French government: Please do not conduct the first in your controversial series of nuclear blasts under a Pacific atoll while Clinton is in the region.

Even though French President Jacques Chirac was eager to proceed with the nuclear tests in the teeth of international protests, he realized he was in no position to turn down such a request from a special friend. Reluctantly, Chirac put off the politically embarrassing blast until Clinton had returned to Washington.

Chirac's gesture was partly a token of respect for the close relationship he has nurtured with Clinton during his first four months in office. But even more, say French and American officials, it was a tip of the hat to the long years of unannounced support and assistance provided by the United States to the French nuclear weapons program.

Despite its claims of developing an independent nuclear deterrent, France has long relied on the United States for some of the most sophisticated technologies needed to upgrade and maintain a modern nuclear arsenal, these officials say.

Although known to specialists, the U.S.-French nuclear links have been little discussed over the years. With the French nuclear tests generating opposition around the Pacific and among environmentalists everywhere, however, the details of the collaboration are getting a new look.

In fact, even though the United States is no longer making its own bombs and has publicly criticized the French tests, U.S. officials say the cooperation is scheduled to expand to an unprecedented degree.

Washington and Paris currently are trying to negotiate an arrangement, for example, under which the two sides will begin to share sensitive computer codes that describe how bombs behave when they are detonated. France needs the data to make full use of access to two sophisticated new U.S. nuclear weapons research facilities that Washington has quietly offered French weapons experts.

In addition, France has begun building a mammoth $4 billion laser facility near Bordeaux for weapons-related research - nine stories high and three football fields long - with the help of an American scientist from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which is one of three U.S. weapons design centers.

A senior U.S. defense official said the Defense Department is straining to keep this collaboration within traditional bounds, in which the United States has secretly shared scientific data to help ensure that French weapons cannot be detonated accidentally or without proper authority while steering clear of collaboration in nuclear weapons design.