Lost Nazi nuke-project uranium found in Dutch scrapyard
Atomic CSI team fingerprints 1940s 'Joachimsthal' metals
EU nuke boffins say that mysterious bits of uranium found last year in a Dutch scrapyard originated in the Nazi nuclear-weapons programme of the 1940s.
Forensic nuke scientists at the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC) traced two pieces of metal - described as a cube and a plate - back to their exact origins and dates. Apparently both came from ores extracted at the "Joachimsthal" mine in what is now the Czech Republic, though the two are from different production batches.
The cube, according to specialists at the JRC's Institute for Transuranium Elements (ITU), was produced in 1943 for the Nazi nuclear programme and was used in the lab of famous boffin Werner Heisenberg (of uncertainty principle fame). The plate was apparently part of experiments by Heisenberg's collaborator Karl Wirtz.
Most historical analysis, with hindsight, suggests that the Nazi nuclear research programme never got very close to developing an atomic weapon. There was no equivalent of the Manhattan Project; rather, different lines of research were followed in different labs. Furthermore the Germans were hampered by having driven many top physicists out of the country with their anti-Semitic policies, and also by drafting other boffins into the army to fight as ordinary soldiers.
Not content with that, the Nazi leadership also chose to clash with the few top brains they had left. At one point Reichsfuhrer Himmler suggested that Heisenberg should be treated as a "White Jew", with presumably fatal consequences. Himmler later changed his mind, but this climate can hardly have encouraged Heisenberg to do his best work.
The halting progress of the Germans was largely unknown to the Allies, however, a factor which prompted the crash efforts of the Manhattan project. In particular, German plans to acquire large quantities of heavy water from Norway for use as a reactor moderator aroused intense worry among the Allies. A sequence of clandestine operations and bombing raids - by the French and British secret services, Norwegian resistance fighters, spec-ops troops and allied air forces - took place, which saw heavy water and its production tech stolen, repeatedly blown up and in one case sunk aboard a sabotaged ferry.
Though the Telemark operations were some of the greatest spec-ops successes ever seen, they may not in fact have been all that critical. After the war, Heisenberg said that he and his colleagues had always been doubtful of the potential of nuclear fission as an explosive. Furthermore, they had taken good care not to big that aspect of the research up to their Nazi masters, for reasons of self-interest.
"We definitely did not want to get into this bomb business," said Heisenberg. "I wouldn't like to idealize this; we did this also for our personal safety. We thought that the probability that this would lead to atomic bombs during the War was nearly zero. If we had done otherwise, and if many thousand people had been put to work on it and then if nothing had been developed, this could have had extremely disagreeable consequences for us."
Nowadays the Allied nations are once again deeply concerned about hostile countries developing nuclear weapons. According to the Euro nuke-forensics team at the JRC-ITU:
A key international topic today is the work of preventing the spread of nuclear weapon technology and illicit trafficking of nuclear materials that can be used for the production of nuclear weapons or so-called dirty bombs.
They've just set up a new "large geometry secondary ion mass spectrometer" which they're very proud of, which should be very handy for nobbling nuclear malefactors. ®
Wasn't ever core (ahem) to the German uranium project which was run mainly by Kurt Diebner. Early on the Germans had decided to concentrate on the power generation potential of fission rather than the bomb, so the Norsk Hydro heavy water was absolutely key to their objectives in calculating the fissionability of uranium.
Fortunately for us the whole project never got a very high profile in the Reich (Speer reported that Hitler only showed a passing interest in the subject) and for a long time ended up being funded by the Reich Postal Ministry of all places. By the time the Germans got round to experimenting with uranium enrichment they were being bombed back to the stone age and there was a crippling shortage of key components.
The German uranium project was eventually wrapped up by the Allies as Operation Alsos (alsos - 'grove' in Greek. The Manhattan Project was run by General Leslie Grove). They recovered a near-criticality experiment and several tonnes of uranium, but nothing close to what the Americans, British and Canadians had achieved.
Oh and trivia buffs. The Joachimsthaler mines which provided the Germans with their uranium were the only source of the metal in Europe. They had also provided Marie Curie with the pitchblende in which she discovered radium and polonium. Uranium extraction had been a side effect of mining silver. Which was used in the local currency, called the thaler. Whose name lives on as 'the dollar'.
Richard Rhodes' 'The Making of the Atomic Bomb' is absolutely recommended reading for anyone interested in how we came to be where we are today.
Heisenberg deserves some slack.
There's not enough recognition of the fact that Heisenberg and some of his colleagues deliberately steered the Axis project away from a bomb towards nucleur power. Post-war he had to take a lot of ribbing from people that claimed he was just too stupid to design a bomb and had thought he needed to drop a complete nucleur engine to generate radiation to poisonous levels. In fact, his research was always aimed at producing a power solution, and even when it became clear his team would not be able to produce a working system before the defeat of the Nazis, he played on Nazi egos to ensure his team were kept together and not pushed into other projects such as producing a dirty bomb. If he had been an all-out Nazi supporter, it is obvious that his team could have produced at least a viable dirty bomb that could have been used against the Channel ports to slow or stop the flow of Allied troops and supplies into Northern Europe in 1945, or against the Russian armies as they swept across Poland. Either would have left large chunks of Europe uninhabitable for decades.
Certain about Heisenberg?
OK, I'd get my coat, but I don't know where it is.