Formerly top secret, Fort de Vaujours was a key site for France’s nuclear arms program, with core components of the country’s first atom bombs developed here in the 1960s. Scientists blew up more than half a ton of uranium in 2,000 explosions at the fort, often outdoors, just 14 miles from the Eiffel Tower.
There were no full nuclear detonations at Vaujours, but parts of the fort were coated in radioactive dust. The site was closed in 1997 and, after efforts at decontamination, sealed to the public.
These days curtains flap from rows of overgrown buildings; radiation symbols and other graffiti cover the security post, which is filled, weirdly, with women’s shoes. The empty housing of a vast supercomputer sits in gloom; vines spill into laboratories.
The ruins recall the post-apocalypse landscape of Pripyat, the Ukrainian town evacuated after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
Ms. Leclerc and her partner, Bruno Mellier, have converted a former ammunition store there into a homey kitchen and cleared a secret garden.
A local mayor allowed the couple to occupy the place in return for keeping vandals away. They do not live on the former nuclear test site, they just spend their days off there.
Built in 1881, Vaujours is a huge complex of raised battlements and underground bunkers. Housed inside is the abandoned test center.
Vaujours’ mission was to develop the core mechanisms of France’s bombs, ensuring that a nuclear payload would detonate. The researchers used natural uranium, far more stable than the enriched material found in bombs and unable to accidentally cause a nuclear explosion.
The Atomic Energy Commission, which conducted the explosions, estimates 150 of the 600 kilograms of uranium it used was blown around the fort.
Much of this was cleared but, because of how it was scattered, the agency cannot really know where there is residual contamination.
In 2011, Christophe Nedelec, a local environmentalist, broke into the fort and, using an amateur Geiger counter, found three spots with elevated levels of radiation.
For three years, government regulators, brought in by the site’s owners, said they could find nothing to support his findings. But in February, Mr. Chareyron’s watchdog group found contamination at the same spots — including a uranium fragment 70 times normal radiation levels — compelling regulators to acknowledge its presence.
During the same tests, state technicians from the Institute for Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety again initially missed the contamination; Mr. Chareyron had to help them locate it.
Inside the ruins, Ms. Leclerc and Mr. Mellier, who sells windmills, spend their time clearing undergrowth and replastering. They were brought together, both in middle age, by a shared passion for the fort.
text & pictures from Seeing a New Future for French Nuclear Site, After the Toxic Dust Has Settled | extra pictures via Souvenirs du Fort de Vaujours |