Did the Nazis use this uranium cube in their failed nuclear program? | Smart news
Rumors of a five-centimeter cube of uranium in the collections of Washington’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) have been around for years. As Caroline Anders reports for the Washington Post, coworkers have long suspected that this strange cube of shimmering material was one of hundreds used by Nazi scientists in their failed attempts to make nuclear weapons during World War II.
No researcher has ever confirmed the history of this particular cube. But thanks to advanced nuclear forensic techniques, the scientists at the Richland Laboratory are closer to the truth than ever, reports Jennifer Ouellette for Ars Technica.
To confirm the theory, researchers Jon Schwantes and Brittany Robertson rely on radiochrometric dating, a method that estimates the age of an object by assessing what decay products of uranium it contains.
Preliminary data suggest that “the age of our cube coincides with the age of the Nazi nuclear program,” says Vice’s Schwantes Becky Ferreira. Records show the cube was shipped to PNNL by the U.S. Department of Energy in the 1990s, but its origins remain unclear until then.
As part of her PhD, Robertson is trying to match “rare earth element signatures” in the PNNL cube with samples from uranium mines, Vice notes. If the signatures match, she may be able to determine where the Nazis got her material from. Top candidates are mines in the Czech Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, both of which were open to the Nazis during the war.
Schwantes and Robertson presented their results at the American Chemical Society’s fall meeting last week.
A look at the underground Haigerloch vault, where Nazi scientists once tried to develop nuclear technology. Today the site is a museum.
(Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Robertson with PNNL’s cube housed in a protective case
(Andrea Starr / PNNL)
In April 1945, members of the Allies’ top-secret Alsos mission attempting to gather information and stop the German nuclear research program found 659 uranium cubes from a field near a Nazi laboratory in Haigerloch, Germany.
Hidden in a cave under a castle, the facility was operated by the physicist Werner Heisenberg. As Alex Lopatka and Andrew Grant reported for Physics Today in 2019, scientists working with Heinseberg had previously built a nuclear test reactor based on an “ominous … chandelier” made of 664 individual uranium cubes, all of which were strung together with aircraft cables.
Allied forces shipped the uranium cubes found at the site first to Paris and later to the USA. But about 400 remained missing, and today the fate of the “vast majority” of the dice is unknown, according to Physics Today. Nazi scientists may have smuggled some out when they fled the lab; others may have been destroyed in the US or sold on the black market.
Had the Nazis succeeded in developing nuclear weapons, World War II could have ended very differently. But while working to thwart the Nazis’ nuclear ambitions, the US also rushed to develop its own powerful weapons. Ultimately, the Manhattan Project managed to build two atomic bomb designs: one based on nuclear fission of uranium and the other based on plutonium, per History.com.
For its part, the PNNL cube is currently being used to train border guards and other officials to spot signs of illegal nuclear weapons smuggling.
“This cube, which may have come from Nazi Germany’s nuclear program to try to produce plutonium for its weapons program, is now being used at the PNNL for training purposes … to make the world a safer place,” Schwantes told the Post. “So it’s an interesting story.”