Hitler's secret nuclear reactor
Published : Sunday, 30 October, 2016 at 12:00 AM Count : 1451
Surrounded by the hilly Swabian forest, there is a small scenic town called Haigerloch in southern Germany. It stands nearly 400 meters above the sea level by forming a couple of loops in a steep limestone valley. During the 16th century a castle was built by the then rulers on a mountaintop as the residence of the counts of Hohenzollern-Haigerloch by replacing a derelict medieval structure. Perched high above the limestone mountain it still glorifies the lost era of the Hohenzollern dynasty. Astonishingly, it is here, some 70 feet beneath this grand castle's beer cellar - a mere 5000 square feet or even less cave like underground which was once used for running a nuclear reactor by German scientists during the Second World War.
It's indeed small, evasive and most inconspicuous for being the location for such sophisticated and dangerous scientific apparatus. Given the location, it's also quite impossible to blow it up from the air because of being surrounded by thick limestone rock-strewn mountains standing densely facing a narrow alley. Turned into a science museum, it today displays a replica reactor along with many original atomic artefacts' and a mind-boggling audio and video tour guide in five languages - drawing scores of tourists from all across the globe. More than the cave, it's the history of it which is more fascinating than to the current standards of any recent Hollywood blockbuster. Let's explore a piece of unforgettable scientific history...
When it comes to nuclear technology, it's usually the Americans and the former soviets who were once acknowledged as the front-runners in the nuclear race but these apart another country, in fact, possessed almost all potentials for building an Atomic bomb. If that country had, however, succeeded in its attempt first, world history would have been written differently today.
Whatever, let's step inside the facility of world's most amusing experimental nuclear reactor built some 75 years ago. You won't be only stepping back in time but also follow the history German nuclear science - its cradle to its progression till mid 1945.
It goes like this.
Following up on a work of the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, it was the group of German scientists - Otto Hahn, Fritz Strassmen, Lise Meitner, and Otto Robert Frisch who had first discovered the nuclear fission in 1938. By the beginning of the war the very next year, the German scientific community was well aware of the early lead in this area of nuclear physics. Nuclear experiments were considered a national secret. However, as the war began in full swing it was soon recognized that it might be possible to bring about a neutron chain reaction by releasing vast amount of energy. But still, overlapping that prospect, entire research work of then German scientists concentrated solely on the construction of a nuclear reactor.
So the question now, logically arises, why wasn't the potentials explored to the full length? May be that could have won the war for the Germans? The answer to it - it didn't materialise because of a number of reasons.
Hitler's ignorance to capitalise on nuclear potentials and also of radical politicization of the German academia under his regime had driven many physicists, engineers, and mathematicians out of Germany by 1933. So much so, the Nazis instead of exploiting nuclear potentials forcefully conscripted many notable German physicists into the army. An entire generation of 14 famous scientists following some 10 physicists and countless professors were forced to leave Germany merely for being Jews. Thus an entire generation of talents and brilliance was simply kicked out of the country.
If ignorance is truly considered as bliss some times, the world should actually thank the Nazis for being so utterly ignorant of such immense potentials.
But after having read a number of books and watching few documentary shows followed by the unforgettable visit at the Atom-Keller museum , this writer believes there is actually a more deeper moral reason than just the above facts that made Germany falling short from developing the world's first atomic weapon.
My belief is many of the scientists actually didn't want to develop the lethal bomb and that's why, at a meeting held at the German army ordnance office in February 1942 , when the Nazi leadership demanded to know if it was possible to build a war-decisive weapon within nine months. Werner Heisenberg, (one of the key pioneers of quantum mechanics and also the principal scientist of the German nuclear energy project) tersely replied with a clear-cut "No". Rather curiously, another German scientist of the project Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker had actually recognized earlier that a bomb could be developed with Plutonium and this key component can be produced in a reactor which can be easily extracted.
The scientists' original capabilities to build a weapon, against the face of all odds are sill mystifying. It's also puzzling that the country was lacking in scientific leadership to advice the fuehrer as well. It's after this crucial meeting when the Nazis completely lost interest in nuclear technology.
However, coming back to our Atomkeller museum, by the end of 1943 air raids on Berlin were becoming so intense that conducting lab experiments became impossible in the big cities. An area was sought which was still relatively safe from air attacks.
South-West-Germany had largely been spared from such attacks so far. It was also foreseen that in the event of occupation, hardly any Soviet troops would penetrate into this area. The scientists by no means wanted to fall prey to the Soviet Union as an occupational power.
Hunt for the new sight had begun in a war-ravaged Germany. Communications system was frequently disrupted, raw materials became sparse and defeat became a matter of time. Amid all dire adversities, physicist Walter Gerlach, the new in charge of the nuclear project is reported to have recalled the area around Hechingen and Haigerloch.
During the dead of night by evading allied detection, the scientists engaged in a deadly adventure by travelling in trucks from Berlin to Haigerloch. The uranium and the heavy water was transported from Berlin to Haigerloch and the famous "B8"-experiment was able to be carried out by the end of March.
By the beginning of April Germany stood on the brink of complete capitulation. Shortly after conducting the last experiment, a special American Task Force carried out an operation.
Titled the "ALSOS-Mission", it was led by the American colonel Pash. After locating and occupying the nuclear reactor at Haigerloch Pash then took the scientists prisoner in their offices and private homes at Hechingen. Heisenberg too was taken prisoner some time later.
But what happened to the raw materials?
The Americans also found some two tonnes of Uranium metal and cubes beside Heavy Water hidden at a nearby forest shortly before they captured the German scientists. They dismantled the experimental nuclear facility in the castle's beer cellar and shipped them with all raw materials to the US.
The final bit of the story to blow-up the reactor cavern has surely some divine intervention in it.
The American Forces had been ordered to blow up the cellar. Hearing this, the then parish priest took Colonel Pash into the baroque Schloßkirche or caslte church located directly above the cellar, and explained that the destruction of the cellar would also result in the destruction of the church. Knowing this, the Americans confined themselves to limited demolition operations in the cellar.
Standing as a museum to the former lab with a full-size replica of the reactor and two of the original uranium cubes on display, the Atomkeller silently echoes of long forgotten German scientific feats during Germany's darkest chapters. Far off the beaten track the museum is an impressive site to see how much nuclear research the German scientists were able to accomplish in a simple disused beer cellar. Scientific charts, diagrams, photographs replica cylinders for storing heavy waters and a guided video documentary have so far drawn scores of science aficionados from all over the world.
Getting out of the museum, this writer stood before the limestone mountain, pondering over what would have happened 'understanding full potentials of nuclear capabilities, if Hitler could have only organised and lead his scientists for carrying out their own 'Manhattan project'. Compared to the original Manhattan the German nuclear programme was much smaller, disorganised, dispersed, and riddled with politicization and an unending mistrust between the scientists and the Nazis. Moreover, the progressive war was continually hampering its progress.
Even then it's rather amazing to follow how the Nazis still progressed with whatever remaining scientists they had. they invented the world's first long range guided ballistic missile - the V-2 coupled with the first fighter jet engine , but not an atomic bomb.
We know today, how the Allied powers each made plans for exploitation of German science and inventions. Most crucially, we know how some 1500 German scientists, physicists; technicians to engineers were smuggled to America under 'operation paperclip' for scientific research and establish the brand 'science made in America'.
However ironic it may sound, full potential of at least a small-scale atomic bomb was very much possible in Nazi Germany provided.....
Nevertheless, the co-ordinated initial drive, unending industrial resources and unconditional government support were indisputably missing. Not to forget that the allied 'Manhattan project' had actually developed not because of a real bomb but because of the fear of a Nazi bomb. Even Einstein himself dreaded of possible German success in building it before any other country and don't forget his famous letter written to the American president which ultimately became the foundation stone for the 'project Manhattan'.
The feared Nazi bomb did not exist but whatever was needed to make it surely existed in Hitler's Germany. At Haigerloch, i only had a glimpse of long-forgotten pure German commitment for attaining scientific brilliance in the field of nuclear experiment.
To finish it with a touch of comedy, it's probably the only place in Germany, where it's not the cold-beer but the concealed processing of heavy-waters which attracted this traveller.
The writer is a freelance journalist