NUCLEAR WEAPONS RESEARCH iN GERMANY, JAPAN

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The German secrecy structure was as airtight as the Manhattan Project, and there was no word as to what nuclear work was transpiring in the Axis countries. Only after the Allies were able to occupy major territory in Germany in early 1945 were investigators able to evaluate the status of the German atomic bomb effort. A special project, known as the Alsos Mis­sion, was formed by General Groves to capture nuclear personnel, plans, and equipment from the defeated country and discover why no nuclear weapons had been implemented. The project had to work quickly and with maximum priority to beat the Soviets in the last-minute rush to col­lect German assets.

image050The Alsos Mission eventually found that the Germans had given up on a full-scale atomic bomb effort in early 1942. The Minister of Armaments and War Production had been killed in a plane crash, and Albert Speer (1905-81), an architect working directly for Adolf Hitler, was named to replace him. Speer immediately took charge of the armaments budget, and in examining the expenditure books he noticed money disappear­ing into a project labeled “uranium.” Curious, Speer arranged a meeting with the principal scientists to find out the nature of this effort. Speer was not impressed. When he asked how long it would take to complete this uranium weapons project, Speer was given the realistic estimate of four or five years. He knew that they did not have four or five years. Germany

After starting off with a firm lead in the race for an atomic bomb, this modest experiment in a cave in Haigerloch, Germany, is all that the Germans had to show for seven years work. Cubes of uranium oxide hanging by wires were lowered into an aluminum pot of heavy water. A self- sustaining fission reaction was never achieved. (Atomkeller-Museum Haigerloch)

would run out of fuel to run tanks, airplanes, and trucks in 12 months, and the ability to wage war would come to a stop, so it made no sense to have a war production effort that would take longer than a year to complete. Nuclear research was given appropriately low priority for the remainder of the war.

Imperial Japan seemed less capable of a practical atomic bomb devel­opment than Germany, but two such projects were underway when the war ended in 1945. Dr. Yoshio Nishina (1890-1951) established a nuclear research laboratory at the Riken Institute for Physical and Chemical Research in 1931, and by 1937 he had built two cyclotrons, copies of the large machines at Berkeley that were used to transmute uranium-238 into plutonium-239. In 1938, he was able to purchase a new cyclotron from Berkeley. In 1939, the potential for nuclear fission in uranium became clear to physicists all over the world, and in July 1941 Nishina became the director of the Japanese army nuclear program. The mis­sion was to build an atomic bomb for use in conquering territory in the Pacific Ocean.

A small Japanese team managed to build gaseous diffusion appara­tus for the critical U-235 separation, but only on a laboratory level and nothing approaching the enormity of the K-25 plant at Oak Ridge, Ten­nessee. Another limiting problem was the lack of uranium. It was only available through the black market in China and by trade with Germany, but there was no usable transport system between Germany and Japan. Attempts were made to ship uranium to Japan by way of submarine, with no success.

Soviet Russia was ideologically opposed to anything as impractical as nuclear research in the decades leading to World War II, but when nuclear fission was discovered in Germany in 1939 official interest picked up. Most Soviet scientists reasoned that nuclear power production was theoretically possible, but development would take decades. The first work in nuclear research was performed in 1940, confirming that multiple neutrons were released in the debris following a fission of uranium.

By April 1942, it was obvious to the Soviets that the United States had launched a nuclear weapons project because suddenly the American phys­ics journals stopped publishing nuclear research papers. Joseph Stalin (1878-1953), general secretary of the Communist Party, saw this as an ominous development, but the USSR was not in a good position to mount a large-scale scientific industrial project. Stalin chose the next-best option, to thoroughly infiltrate the Manhattan Project with spies.

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