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Bertrand Goldschmidt

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The Avner Cohen Collection

Interview with Bertrand Goldschmidt

Bertrand Goldschmidt (November 2, 1912-June 11, 2002) was one of France’s leading nuclear scientists.  The only Frenchman to have worked on the Manhattan project, Goldschmidt held many positions within the Commissariat a l'Energie Atomique and eventually served as the chairman of the IAEA. While working for the Commissariat a l'Energie Atomique, Goldschimdt became involved in French-Israeli nuclear relations, including meeting with David Ben Gurion.


Bertrand Goldschmidt (2 November 1912–11 June 2002) was one of France’s leading nuclear scientists. He studied chemistry at the Radium Institute and earned his Ph.D in 1939. Goldschmidt lost his professorship at the Radium Institute in 1940 when the Vichy government forbade Jews from holding academic positions. Soon after, he joined the Free French Forces and subsequently became the only Frenchman to work on the Manhattan Project. In collaboration with Glenn Seaborg at the University of Chicago, he helped develop the PUREX aqueous nuclear reprocessing technique, which remains one of the most widely used methods for recovering uranium and plutonium from spent nuclear fuel.

After the war, Goldschmidt began a long career at the French Atomic Energy Commisssion (Commissariat a l'Energie Atomique, CEA). At the CEA, Goldschmidt was the head of the chemistry division (1946-1959) and later, the head of external relations and planning. While at the CEA, Goldschmidt became involved with the development of early French-Israeli nuclear ties and helped to foster commercial exchanges of both nuclear technology and nuclear policy development. At the request of the government, Goldschmit traveled to Israel in 1954 to meet with Prime Minister David Ben Gurion about nuclear issues. From 1956 to 1957 Goldschmidt was among the few senior CEA officials who participated in the negotiations leading to the establishment of the Dimona nuclear facility in Israel.  

Goldschmidt also served as the French Governor on the Board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from 1958 to 1980 and Chairman of the IAEA in 1980. Atoms for Peace, Inc., an independent corporation funded through the Ford Motor Company, presented Goldschmidt with the “Atoms for Peace” award in 1967. He is the author of two books, Pioneers of the Atom and The Atomic Complex

Interview Notes by Avner Cohen

This interview with Dr. Bertrand Goldschmidt took place at the headquarters of the Commissariat à l’Énergie Atomique (CEA) in Paris on 15 June 1993. Goldschmidt was eighty-one years of age and formally retired, but still had office privileges as a distinguished emeritus. The interview was arranged by the late Thérèse Delpech, one of France's foremost thinkers on international security, who was then a senior official at the CEA. Ms. Delpech was present during the entire interview, took notes, and occasionally made a few comments (in French, mostly helping Goldschmidt’s memory).

Goldschmidt was my most senior French interviewee. He was among the founding-fathers of the French nuclear establishment. Goldschmidt was already a well-known nuclear scientist prior to the creation of the CEA and was often referred to as the Frenchman of the Manhattan Project. When the CEA was founded after World War II, Goldschmidt headed the agency’s chemistry division for a decade, and later became a scientist-diplomat as head of the CEA’s “External Affairs” division. Both positions provided him a great vantage point to watch the evolution of French-Israeli nuclear relations.

While Goldschmidt agreed to give me an interview, he appeared a little nervous about the subject matter and unsure of how candid he could be with me. It was clear that his statements that “I do not remember” actually meant “I am choosing not to remember this.”

Despite Goldschmidt’s reservations, the interview yielded some new, even fascinating information. His testimony shows that French-Israeli nuclear cooperation began before the major decisions made in Paris to pursue the Dimona deal in 56–57.  A fabric of scientific, commercial, cultural, and even family ties governed the early phase of cooperation between the two nuclear programs.

Goldschmidt told me that he attended the important meeting in September 1956 where Shimon Peres requested French aid to set up an Israeli nuclear program. Although he could not recall in precision which words Peres used in that meeting, Goldschmidt attested that Peres asked for French assistance in helping to build “something like nuclear capacity.” This was a significant request, given that at the time France was undecided on the military purposes of its own nuclear program.

The Israeli request included two major elements: the reactor and the plutonium extraction facility. The former was relatively easy to agree upon, the latter was quite difficult. While not recalling details, Goldschmidt remembers that it was a difficult, frustrating process. Goldschmidt also recalls that at one point in the negotiation Peres even came to see him at home. Goldschmidt does not recall why, but he was convinced that it had to do with the complexity of the discussion.

He recalls vividly that Francis Perrin, then France’s high commissioner of nuclear energy, was initially in favor of the Israeli deal, but later had second thoughts and hesitated for weeks, stuck on the matter of the plutonium reprocessing plant. Ultimately, CEA’s other chief officer, Pierre Guillaumat, urged Goldschmidt one night to convince Perrin to approve the arrangement. Years later Perrin accused Goldschmidt of “extorting” him to sign the agreement that night.

Goldschmidt’s testimony also confirms that the French-Israeli nuclear agreement was backdated by one day due to Prime Minister Bourges Manoury losing a no confidence vote in the National Assembly before he could sign it. According to Goldschmidt, the new French Prime Minister Félix Gaillard was totally unaware of the agreement when he took office, leaning about the deal months later.

Read the interview transcript on the Digital Archive