How Nazi Germany came much closer to the construction of a nuclear weapon in World War II

One of 664 cubes of two-inch uranium produced in Nazi Germany during a failed attempt to create a nuclear reactor in World War II. (John T. Consoli / University of Maryland)

A cube of uranium. A Nazi plan to build a nuclear bomb. A search for the fate of the remaining pieces of an experiment that could have altered the story.

It sounds like a base for a war thriller. Instead, the story appears in the last issue of Physics Today, the membership magazine of the American Institute of Physics.

It is the story of 664 cubes of uranium produced by researchers in Nazi Germany. They tried to decipher the nuclear code in an underground laboratory in the "atomic warehouse" of a castle in Haigerloch. But the experiment failed.

When a two-inch cube of the failed reactor made its way to Timothy Koeth, a physicist at the University of Maryland at College Park, his curiosity awoke.

Miriam Hiebert, a Ph.D. student in the materials science and engineering program, volunteered to help him learn more about his past.

Despite the genius of physicists such as Werner Heisenberg, the German nuclear weapons program was hampered by the bureaucracy during World War II.

Instead of pooling their resources, Nazi Germany divided the researchers into three competing teams, and the same contest that the Germans thought would boost innovation ended up stifling it.

But they came much closer to a nuclear weapon than the scholars thought.

Koeth and Hiebert used archival materials to reconsider the Nazi nuclear program. What they discovered is disconcerting.

"If the Germans had grouped rather than divided their resources," write Koeth and Hiebert, "they would have been significantly closer to creating a functioning reactor before the end of the war."

The researchers want to track all the cubes. The narrative of the failed nuclear program of the Nazis is an intriguing reading, which turns what could be considered as a historical curiosity into a much more sinister story.

– Erin Blakemore

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