UNITED STATES (OBSERVATORY NEWS) —
The package arrived in the summer of 2013, and its contents surprised many recipients – nuclear physicists Timothy Koeth and Miriam Hiebert from the University of Maryland (USA): it was a cube of slightly enriched uranium about five centimeters in size and weighing about five pounds . No less surprising was the attached note: “From the reactor that Hitler was trying to build. Ninninger’s Gift.”
At first, Cat and Hibert did not know what to do with this “gift”. They really were part of a small group of researchers collecting historical objects of this kind. Miriam Hibert, who is currently working on her doctoral dissertation, spoke about this in an interview with the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung.
Having received the package, the scientists asked a number of questions: could this uranium cube really remain after working on the atomic bomb in the Third Reich? Who sent them this strange “gift”? And what is this Ninninger that scientists have never heard of?
Cat and Hibert began their investigation. The main historical facts were, of course, known to them. Since 1941, scientists in Nazi Germany have been researching to create a “bomb,” because the Reich leadership hoped to use it to achieve a decisive advantage over opponents in the war. Scientists were divided into three groups working in three different places: in Berlin, Leipzig and Gottow.
Heisenberg took refuge in a cave
The Berlin group, led by renowned physicist Werner Heisenberg, was transferred to the south of Germany in the winter of 1944, because its work was threatened by the endless attacks of opponents on the capital. Scientists took refuge in a cave under the castle of Haigerloch near Tübingen. By that time, the Heisenberg team had already managed to conduct seven experiments with uranium, and the eighth, codenamed B-VIII, took place in Heigerloch.
Eight years later, Heisenberg described the situation at that time as follows: 664 cubic meters of uranium weighing five pounds were placed in an experimental reactor. Cubes hung on 78 aluminum cables on the lid of the boiler, which was filled with heavy water. The boiler was surrounded by a ring-shaped wall of graphite, which was supposed to reflect the neutrons released during fission. The problem was that it was impossible to achieve a self-sustaining fission process (prerequisites for creating an atomic bomb).
Historians still argue about whether German scientists had a chance to build an atomic bomb using the methods at their disposal. At first, nuclear scientist Manfred Popp expressed doubts about this, because they had insufficient financial resources and the necessary working conditions. According to him, the German nuclear program lagged far behind the similar Manhattan Project in the USA in these aspects, which was crowned with success.
More Uranium Than Thought
However, Popp, unlike other colleagues, admitted that the uranium at the disposal of German scientists was quite enough. And it was precisely this conclusion that the Cat and Hibert came to – their further investigation only reinforced this theory. Because when they tried to figure out the past of “their” uranium cube, they came across documents confirming that Germany had much more uranium than was previously thought.
659 uranium cubes were stored in Heigerloch (Heisenberg talked about 664), and this amount was really insufficient. “But it could have worked if the Germans used 50% more uranium cubes. Therefore, many scientists for a long time thought that German researchers could not create an operational nuclear reactor because they lacked uranium, ”wrote Kot and Hibert in an article for the specialized publication Technology Review. But in reality, Heisenberg and colleagues had more than these 50% of uranium, and much more.
Amazing find in the archive
But how did scientists from Maryland come to such conclusions? At first, they were able to convincingly prove that “their” cube really came from Heigerloch. They also demonstrated that it was never part of a reactor that would achieve criticality. Then they dealt with the question: how did “their” cube get to the USA? And maybe there were other similar cubes?
During the investigation, Cat and Hibert found a box with the signature “German Uranium” in the US National Archives. The contents surprised them a lot: there were several hundred documents from which the country’s authorities removed the “secret” stamp. They were dedicated to German uranium cubes.
From these documents it followed that the Germans, in addition to the aforementioned 659 cubes, had about 400 more. They were at the disposal of another group of researchers working in Gottovo (however, their experiments were canceled as a result). If you stack both of these cubes, you would literally have a very explosive amount of uranium. Because “the combined amount of the substance would be more than sufficient to achieve the criticality of reactor B-VIII.”
All Heisenberg needed was heavy water. However, the human factor intervened in the matter – relations between individual team members deteriorated. “Scientists literally were at enmity with each other. They almost hated each other, ”says Miriam Hibert. And it was precisely this circumstance, in her opinion, that prevented the successful completion of the program – unlike the American program, whose participants were not only better off financially, but also had close contact with each other.
Most of the German uranium went to the USSR
The investigation found at least a partial explanation of what happened to all these uranium cubes after the war. In Germany, a real “black market” appeared, in which the Americans were offered the substance at completely insane prices. Since they refused to buy them, the Soviet Union intervened in the matter – and got them. However, in the USSR traces of nuclear matter were lost, and its further fate is unknown.
Some cubes still ended up in America – in private ways. One of them ended up in the hands of researchers at their Maryland. He was taken in 1945 from Germany by a man named Robert D. Nininger, who was responsible for finding materials for the implementation of the Manhattan Project, and then presented it to a friend.
Timothy Kot managed to find out who Nininger was, a friend of whom almost 70 years later anonymously sent him to him with Hubert. However, in his mysterious note “From the reactor that Hitler was trying to build. Ninninger’s Gift ”, he spelled the name incorrectly, namely with two“ ns ”.
This article is written and prepared by our foreign editors writing for OBSERVATORY NEWS from different countries around the world – material edited and published by OBSERVATORY staff in our newsroom.
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