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US researchers work to trace mystery uranium cubes back to Nazi nuclear program via Times of Israel

Hundreds of radioactive ‘Heisenberg cubes’ were lost to history after war, but new forensic analysis on the material could fill historical gaps, boost nuclear safeguards

By LUKE TRESS

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In the town of Haigerloch, hidden in a cave beneath a castle, the Allied team uncovered an experimental nuclear reactor and buried in a field nearby, 659 uranium cubes. Heisenberg fled into the night, riding a bicycle with a backpack full of the radioactive blocks.

Most of the so-called “Heisenberg cubes” were lost after the war. Researchers in the US are now, for the first time, carrying out nuclear forensic analysis on three uranium cubes believed to be from Nazi laboratories, in a project that could have historical significance, as well as implications for nuclear security.

Brittany Robertson and Jon Schwantes of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington State revealed the project on Tuesday at a meeting of the American Chemical Society.

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The artifacts’ Nazi origin “has been claimed by a number of people that have had access to these cubes, but to our knowledge, never actually confirmed experimentally,” she said. Robertson is pioneering new techniques to determine the material’s origin, as part of her doctoral thesis.

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One of the cubes used in the experiment is housed in the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. The other two cubes come from the personal collection of their collaborator, Timothy Koeth, of the University of Maryland.

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Between the two facilities, the Nazis amassed between 1,000-1,200 uranium cubes. The blocks are about two inches long on each side, are charcoal-gray and weigh about five pounds. The Germans suspended hundreds of them on cables in heavy water as part of a failed attempt to produce plutonium.

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After starting in Italy, the Alsos team moved into southern Germany with the Allied advance and Heisenberg’s scientists fled their laboratory. They buried the uranium cubes, hid the heavy water in barrels, and concealed documents in a latrine. The Allied troops entered Haigerloch in April 1945, arrested and interrogated the scientists, and discovered the nuclear materials. Heisenberg was captured in German territory the following month, before being flown to England and held in a safe house.

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They are using a process call radiochronometry to date the cubes and line up the time frame with the Nazi program, and have confirmed that one of the cubes is natural uranium, which is consistent with the material used in the program.

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The object is already used by the lab for educational purposes, such as training border guards and students. The new forensic analysis methods could help authorities in future nuclear investigations as part of non-proliferation or safeguard activities, by allowing investigators to determine the history of an object, corroborate its paperwork, or verify claims about its provenance, Robertson said.

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  1. yukimiyamotodepaul says

    Narrating that the US (or the Allied Powers) stopped Nazis nuclear program does too often glorify the US nuclear program, which is a very sophisticated way to cover up the harm and damage done by the US nuclear production within and outside the US. Quite problematic.



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