Stamp of Approval

What do postage stamps say about the countries that produce them? Plenty.

On May 23, 1959, the French post office issued a stamp commemorating the Marcoule nuclear-research facility, an immense complex on the banks of the Rhône River in southeastern France. The stamped postcard shown here is a first day (“Premier Jour”) cover, released the day a stamp is made publicly available. Such postcards are not only highly collectible; they also offer insight into what a country chooses to celebrate. This particular postcard displays patriotic enthusiasm for France’s young nuclear-research program, which lagged behind those of the United States and the United Kingdom.

From its beginnings France’s nuclear program aimed for more than electricity for civilians. Some of the plutonium extracted at Marcoule was diverted to a parallel research program of nuclear-bomb building. The embarrassing loss of French Indochina (Vietnam) and the 1956 Suez crisis had given impetus to the country’s desire to reestablish itself as an independent world power. The bomb would allow France to go it alone, without the need for allies, in sorting out its international affairs. Of even greater importance France would never again rely on foreign imports to supplement its meager deposits of oil and coal.

In 1948 France opened its first uranium mine in La Crouzille. By 1956 scientists had discovered more deposits of uranium near Limoges and had extracted hundreds of tons from the ground. But French scientists needed a material more potent than natural or unenriched uranium for a sustainable energy program. Enter Bertrand Goldschmidt, the director of the chemistry division of France’s Commission of Atomic and Alternative Energies, who in 1944 had successfully extracted trace amounts of plutonium while working on the Manhattan Project. His method used tributyl phosphate as a solvent to separate plutonium from uranium. The resulting plutonium could be used to “breed” more fissile material to power a nuclear reactor and would produce nearly inexhaustible energy. When Marcoule opened late in 1956, the G1 reactor was the first to become operational. It was fueled by the recently mined natural uranium, moderated by graphite, and cooled by gas. The G1 was designed to produce plutonium that could be extracted from the spent fuel with Goldschmidt’s method while simultaneously producing electricity. After the G1 proved successful, G2 and G3 reactors with similar functions were built.

Stamp of Approval

Marcoule nuclear facility

A 1959 stamped postcard celebrates the opening of France’s Marcoule nuclear facility. Marcoule produced electricity and made fuel for nuclear weapons.

Science History Institute

By 1960 France had extracted enough plutonium to build a bomb. Later that year it successfully tested a bomb in the Algerian desert, becoming the world’s fourth nuclear power. Further tests followed in French Polynesia after Algeria gained independence. France continued to test nuclear weapons as late as 1995, after the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union had agreed to suspend nuclear testing.

Research at Marcoule shifted away from weapons in the 1990s. As France reduced its nuclear stockpile and shut down aging reactors, Marcoule’s primary function turned to decommissioning and recycling nuclear waste and repurposing it to fuel modern nuclear-power plants. Its transformation from a plutonium manufacturing plant to a recycling center underscores the fact that today more than 75% of France’s electricity is produced in nuclear-power plants.

France’s commitment to nuclear energy was shaken on September 12, 2011, when a furnace used to melt down nuclear waste at Marcoule exploded, killing one and injuring four. No radiation was released, but the incident rattled the public, coming as it did just six months after the disaster at Fukushima, Japan. In the aftermath of Fukushima many countries stopped planning and building nuclear facilities; France, however, has maintained its commitment to nuclear energy.

The meaning behind the “Premier Jour” stamp has changed since its 1959 issue. Once a celebration of the bright nuclear future of a France independent in its energy production and military might, Marcoule now symbolizes the uncertain future of nuclear power. Even, perhaps, in France.