What happened to the WWII uranium cubes from the failed nuclear reactor effect in Nazi Germany?

An image of the uranium cubes from the WWII Nazi Germany nuclear reactor effort
© John T. Consoli/University of Maryland

What happened to the WWII uranium cubes from the failed effort at building a working nuclear reactor in Nazi Germany?

An associate professor at the University of Maryland, Timothy Koeth, was given one of the uranium cubes from the failed World War II (WWII) working nuclear reactor effort in Nazi Germany.

The uranium cube

Uranium is weakly radioactive, and this cube measures approximately 2 inches on each side. It came with a note which said: “Taken from Germany, from the nuclear reactor Hitler tried to build. Gift of Ninninger.”

Miriam Hiebert, a doctoral candidate working with him on this project, commented: “It’s surprisingly heavy, given its size, and it’s always a lot of fun to watch people’s reaction when they pick it up for the first time.”

The failed working nuclear reactor

Why did the nuclear reactor effort ultimately fail?

According to Hiebert, “If the Germans had pooled their resources, rather than keeping them divided among separate, rival experiments, they may have been able to build a working nuclear reactor. This highlights perhaps the biggest difference between the German and American nuclear research programs. The German program was divided and competitive; whereas, under the leadership of General Leslie Groves, the American Manhattan Project was centralized and collaborative.”

Koeth added: “it’s been calculated that the reactor experiment in Haigerloch would have needed about 50% more uranium to run. Even if the 400 additional cubes had been brought to Haigerloch to use within that reactor experiment, the German scientists would have still needed more heavy water to make the reactor work. Despite being the birthplace of nuclear physics and having nearly a two-year head start on American efforts, there was no imminent threat of a nuclear Germany by the end of the war.”

The future of the research

Hiebert concluded: “We hope to speak to as many people as possible who’ve had contact with these cubes. As much as we’ve learned about our cube and others like it, we still don’t have an answer about how exactly it ended up in Maryland 70 years after being captured by Allied forces in southern Germany.”

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