The history of the Manhattan Allied Project, which was founded in 1942 to defeat Germany in the bomb race, is well known today. But much less is known to the public what success Germany has actually achieved in this race.
In the popular imagination and in the fears of the Allied leaders of the day, it was easy to imagine that the two projects were mirror images of each other. In fact, they were almost the exact opposite of each other. Allied efforts consisted of pooling the resources of the United States, Great Britain and Canada, dispatching the best scientists and engineers to specially designed secret sites operating in accordance with military discipline, with the full support of the Allied governments and on a limited budget.
Since Germany began work on its bomb in April 1939, shortly after the atomic fission was demonstrated in the laboratory, the Allies thought they were three years behind and began feverishly to create their own weapon before the German version was dropped on London or Washington.
The truth was that the progress of the Germans during this same time was ... somewhat far from being able to load atomic bombs on V2 rockets. Part of the reason was that the Nazi anti-Jewish pogroms forced the world's leading physicists to flee the German sphere of influence to the West, while those who remained were either mobilized into the army or sent to work on other projects, such as the first ballistic missile.
Worse, Armaments Minister Albert Speer and the leaders of the Uranium Club, as the project was nicknamed, deliberately downplayed the idea of a bomb so that Hitler would not be enthusiastic about it. This was partly due to the fact that the scientists of the project believed that they would not have time to create a bomb before the end of the war, but mainly because no one wanted to tell the Fuehrer the news of the failure - such news often cut the lives of those who were involved in them.
As a result, the German project was unfocused. Divided into several groups, the team mainly worked on the theoretical concept of the bomb, preferring to focus the main efforts on the development of the atomic engine, and therefore the project moved from one department to another. They made such little progress that when key scientist Werner Heisenberg was captured and later informed that an atomic bomb had been dropped on Japan, he refused to believe it.
When Germany fell in 1945, the British and Americans already had special teams ready to rush across the country to secure enemy research facilities before the invading Red Army could capture them. These included a German experimental reactor called Leipzig-IV at Haigerloch, which consisted of approximately 650 cubes of uranium, about 5 cm wide, which were placed on strands of aviation wire and then suspended in a vat of heavy water in which hydrogen atoms were replaced by more heavy isotopes of deuterium.
These cubes were supposed to cause a fission reaction with water, which slowed down the neutrons so much that the probability of their interaction with the uranium atom increased dramatically. It didn't work: later calculations showed that at least another thousand of these cubes would be required for success, and the reactor was damaged due to the accumulated oxygen inside. This led to the explosion and the world's first nuclear accident.
After the war, many of these cubes were shipped to the United States and Great Britain, but some were lost in the process of transportation, and over the past 75 years, some of them have appeared from time to time in the most unexpected places.
One of these cubes ended up at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland, Washington. How he got there remains a mystery - the scientists were not even sure that it really was one of the missing cubes of the German reactor. Hoping to find an answer, the team led by John Schwantes applied modern forensic techniques to compare the surviving cubes and find out which research groups they were associated with.
The PNNL cube is considered the Heisenberg cube of Haigerloch, but the evidence is mostly anecdotal. To put things on a more scientific footing, team member Brittany Robertson used a technique called radio chronometry to gather some hard facts.
Radio chronometry is the same as carbon dating, which is used to determine the age of archaeological finds. When the body is alive, it absorbs carbon from the environment. Some of this carbon is the radioactive isotope carbon-14, which is created by cosmic rays striking the atmosphere, and remains in a more or less constant ratio until the introduction of industrial pollution and tests of atmospheric nuclear weapons.
When an organism dies, carbon-14 decays at a known rate. By measuring the ratio of carbon-14 to normal carbon, it is possible to calculate with surprising accuracy the date of the appearance of, for example, an Egyptian mummy.
With regard to the reactor cubes, similar conclusions can be drawn. Since the cubes were originally made from almost pure uranium, it is relatively easy to determine their age. In addition, trace elements and their isotopes can also tell a lot about cubes and their origins, including where the original ore was mined. The latter is important because it can help determine whether the PNNL cube belongs to the Heisenberg group, which started in Berlin but moved to Haigerloch, or the Kurt Diebner research group working in Gottow.
Another part of the detective game is the cube coating that was applied in the 1940s to prevent oxidation. The Heisenberg group used a cyanide-based coating, but the PNNL cube is coated with styrene, just like some Diebner cubes. This means that the cube could be from the Diebner group, or it could be one of those that were later transferred from the Diebner group to the Heisenberg group.
According to the team, this investigation has more than historical value. The same techniques used on reactor cubes are also used to track illicit trafficking in nuclear materials, which can include illegally obtained nuclear reactor fuel, materials that can be used to make weapons, terrorist activities, and simple smuggling of used radioactive isotopes in medicine. and industry.