A Story Of Nazi Uranium

Aug 29, 2019
Originally published on August 29, 2019 10:34 am
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we're going to bring you the story of a mysterious cube of uranium. The cube turned up one day in a suburb of Washington, D.C., after it had been lost for more than half a century.

NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has the story of the uranium and its dark past.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Timothy Koeth is a physicist at the University of Maryland and also a huge collector of nuclear memorabilia. His office is crammed with radioactive relics - pieces of melted glass from beneath the test of the world's first nuclear weapon, old watches with glowing dials.

TIMOTHY KOETH: And this would be in somebody's pocket.

BRUMFIEL: A few years back, he was out for a hot, sweaty August jog when his cellphone rang. It was a friend of his.

KOETH: They said, I need you to meet me as soon as possible.

BRUMFIEL: So Tim told this person where he was. And the voice on the other end says great, there's a parking lot nearby. Head over.

KOETH: And about 20 minutes later, we got together and got out of the car, opened the trunk of the car and...

BRUMFIEL: There in the trunk was a little satchel, like a lunch satchel. And inside, wrapped in paper towels, was this weird-looking metal cube, charcoal black with little notches on the side. And it was really, really heavy for its size.

KOETH: I looked at my friend. And I said, do you know what that is? And they responded to me and said, well, I think so. Do you know what it is? (Laughter).

BRUMFIEL: It turned out they didn't need to guess because wrapped around the cube was a piece of paper.

KOETH: Sort of like a ransom note around a rock that would be thrown through somebody's window. And it says gift of Ninninger - a piece of uranium from the reactor Hitler tried to build.

BRUMFIEL: That's right. This was a cube of pure uranium made by the Nazis. During World War II, the Nazis had a nuclear program. Actually, in the run-up to the war, the Germans were leaders in nuclear technology.

ALEX WELLERSTEIN: Nuclear fission was discovered in Berlin in late 1938.

BRUMFIEL: Alex Wellerstein is a historian of science at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J.

WELLERSTEIN: They were the first team of people who figured out how to split the atom and figured out that when you split the atom, a lot of energy was going to be released.

BRUMFIEL: That basic idea of splitting atoms to release energy is what's at the heart of all of today's nuclear power plants and all the world's nuclear weapons. But back during the war, this was all theoretical. To find out how it could work, the Germans devised a strange-looking experiment. Scientists strung together hundreds of cubes of uranium with aircraft cables and suspended them...

WELLERSTEIN: Kind of like a very strange modernist chandelier (laughter) of cubes.

BRUMFIEL: ...In a tank of special water. It was called the B-VIII reactor. The Germans never quite got it to work. They were still experimenting with it when the Allied invasion began. Quickly, the scientists disassembled the reactor and buried the cubes in a field. But the Allies figured out what the researchers were up to.

WELLERSTEIN: They find some of these scientists, they tell them where the stuff is, and they go get it. So they dig up this uranium.

BRUMFIEL: Allied troops box up 659 uranium cubes and send them back to America. And then - well, Wellerstein says the trail goes cold.

WELLERSTEIN: The records on this kind of stuff are less good than you'd expect (laughter) given what they are.

BRUMFIEL: Now, the news the U.S. government has misplaced hundreds of cubes of Nazi uranium might seem highly alarming. I should say the cubes are made of natural uranium, and that means they're not particularly radioactive or valuable. And Wellerstein points out that the Nazi program never even got close to building a bomb. It's really a footnote in the history books.

But Tim Koeth doesn't see it as a footnote because the Americans, they thought the Nazis were racing towards a bomb. And that's a big part of why they rushed ahead with the Manhattan Project and built the world's first nuclear weapon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: This was the end result of $2 billion spent on research and production, of years of feverish labor to harness atomic power ahead of the enemy.

BRUMFIEL: It was the fear of little black cubes, like the one on his desk, that launched the nuclear age.

KOETH: This cube weighs five pounds, but it's one of the few remaining physical relics representing why the United States generated the Manhattan Project. And everything that came out of that afterwards - nuclear weapons and nuclear power, the Cold War, the threat of this nuclear hostage that our planet is held in - it's all motivated by this effort that produced just these 600-and-some cubes.

BRUMFIEL: Which is why Koeth is determined to find out what happened to the cubes, starting with the one from the trunk of the car. And the big clue was in that note wrapped around it. Remember it said piece of uranium from the reactor Hitler tried to build. But there was another clue - the words gift of Ninninger.

KOETH: Literally just a few weeks later, I was at a flea market and was looking through a box of used science books and came across this book called "Minerals For Atomic Energy" by Robert D. Nininger.

BRUMFIEL: What kind of flea markets do you go to?

KOETH: Oh, the (laughter).

BRUMFIEL: It turns out Robert Nininger was in charge of inventory for part of the Manhattan Project. It's likely he oversaw the arrival of the Nazi cubes from Europe. Mimi Hiebert, a postdoc working with Koeth, says it's possible Nininger or one of his colleagues handed out a few cubes as souvenirs.

MIMI HIEBERT: Sounds nuts to us. But you know, physicists back in the 1940s, it wouldn't have been quite as alarming.

BRUMFIEL: Nininger kept his cube until he died. It was found in his estate and passed to Koeth's friend, who gave it to him. There are a few other cubes out there. One was donated to Harvard by a physicist who worked on the original mission to recover the uranium. The Smithsonian has one.

HEBERT: The Smithsonian's cube was found in a drawer and was donated by the person who found it. What other? There's the one that was found in the creek in Germany.

BRUMFIEL: It's believed famous German physicist Werner Heisenberg tossed it into a local river as he fled. It was later recovered.

HEBERT: That's now in a museum.

KOETH: There was one that wound up at Pacific Northwest National Lab...

HEBERT: Oh, yeah. We're not sure...

KOETH: ...That nobody's quite sure how it got there.

BRUMFIEL: Which leaves around 650 cubes completely unaccounted for.

HEBERT: They genuinely would not shock me at all if they're sitting in a box somewhere (laughter), and just no one's wanted to move this really heavy box in the past 70 years (laughter).

KOETH: That is probably the most likely outcome right now.

BRUMFIEL: So if you happen to be working in a lab or maybe a big government facility and you spot a really heavy box in the basement, take a peek inside and give Tim and Mimi a call.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

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