An Expanded Role and New Positioning for the High Commissioner for Atomic Energy

The role of High Commissioner for Atomic Energy was established as early as 1945 and has evolved significantly over the years. The latest change, a decree dated 30 December 2023, significantly expanded its scope of competence and positioned it closer to the Prime Minister.

The position of High Commissioner for Atomic Energy was created by the ordinance of 18 October 1945 establishing the Atomic Energy Commission (CEA). Initially, the CEA had a dual leadership structure, with the High Commissioner responsible for the scientific and technical direction of the institution, while the General Administrator was responsible for its administrative and financial management. Both were appointed by the President of the Republic and served as advisors to the Government on all matters related to atomic energy. The underlying idea of this dichotomy was that “the scientists who make up [the body] must be free from administrative concerns” (a fortunate time for researchers!). The first High Commissioner was Frédéric Joliot-Curie, Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry in 1935 along with his wife Irène and former director of the CNRS, and the first General Administrator was Raoul Dautry, a former member of the Provisional Government.

Subsequently, a Reduced Role within the CEA

As often happens in dual-leadership structures, this operating mode did not last. By a decree of 29 September 1970 reforming the founding ordinance, the High Commissioner’s role was limited to that of scientific and technical advisor to the General Administrator, while remaining an ex officio member of the Board of Directors and president of the Scientific Council of the body. However, he could directly approach the Atomic Energy Committee [1], of which he was a member, and the relevant ministers with his proposals concerning the general scientific and technical direction “which he deems desirable”, thus maintaining his role as an advisor to the Government… as long as his proposals were heard. Furthermore, he could be tasked with various missions, particularly in the field of education; in this capacity, he chaired the teaching council of the National Institute for Nuclear Science and Technology (INSTN), associated with the CEA.

In 2009, the High Commissioner was entrusted with regal responsibilities in the field of governmental control of nuclear deterrence and the patrimonial management of nuclear materials, whether or not dedicated to defence.

Expanded Role and Administrative Repositioning

By a decree of 30 December 2023 by the President of the Republic, the High Commissioner’s role was expanded and his positioning altered. In relation to the CEA, although he loses his status as a member of the Board of Directors, he retains the presidency of the Scientific Council of the body and remains (temporarily, see below) the scientific and technical advisor to the General Administrator.

Beyond the CEA, he is authorised to submit to the concerned members of the Government his proposals concerning, in the field of civilian and military nuclear activities, the general scientific and technical direction in the areas of nuclear policy, defence, and nuclear security, significantly broadening his field of competence.

Additionally, he can now:

  • Assume, by delegation from the Secretary-General for Defence and National Security (SGDSN), the secretariat of the Nuclear Policy Council [2](previously exercised by the secretariat of the presidency of the Republic). In this capacity, he prepares the deliberations of this body and follows their implementation; for this purpose, he has an assistant from the Directorate-General for Energy and Climate (DGEC);
  • Be tasked, at the request of the Minister of Defence, the Minister responsible for Energy, and the SGDSN, with advisory and expert missions in the field of nuclear policy, as well as missions concerning defence and national security;
  • Be tasked, at the request of the Minister responsible for Energy, the Minister in charge of Research, and the Minister responsible for Higher Education, with advisory and expert missions concerning research and higher education in the field of nuclear policy.

Due to the expansion of its missions, the High Commissioner is administratively attached to the SGDSN, instead of the CEA, positioning him close to the Prime Minister, as was originally the case.

Upcoming Changes

It should be noted that these provisions are expected to evolve further with the adoption of the bill relating to the organisation of governance of nuclear safety and radioprotection to meet the challenge of relaunching the nuclear sector, recently submitted to Parliament, which provides for the repeal of the legislative article of the research code [3] establishing the High Commissioner for Atomic Energy. This will result in the elimination of the latter’s role as advisor to the General Administrator of the CEA and position him exclusively close to the Prime Minister through his attachment to the SGDSN. The functions of the High Commissioner will then be governed solely by the decree of 30 December 2023. However, a further amendment to this text will be necessary to remove the reference to the aforementioned article of the research code, which remains in force until the adoption of the bill. ■

By Marc Léger, President of the Technical Section for Law and Insurance at the French Nuclear Society (Sfen)

[1] Initially competent for “general problems of nuclear policy”, its responsibilities are now limited to (civilian) activities and the organisation of the CEA. It is presided over by the Prime Minister or a minister by delegation.

[2] Chaired by the President of the Republic, this council defines the major orientations of nuclear policy and ensures their implementation, particularly in matters of export and international cooperation, industrial policy, energy policies, research, safety, security, and environmental protection.

[3] Article L. 332-4.