92. Uranium: Two Untold Tales (Live At Harvard)

America’s worst radioactive accident isn’t Three Mile Island, and the Nazi nuclear physicist wasn’t assassinated by the famous baseball player.

Featured above: A replica of the “uranium chandelier” used in the Nazis’ failed nuclear reactor. And one of those radioactive cubes could be yours!

It really was a wonderful experience all around to get to spend a day at Harvard. I was shown such a great time, getting an up-close look at scientific instruments old and new that I’ve only ever read about, and my hosts were incredibly gracious.

It was a new experience to do a live show. When I record at home, certain sections often require me to do several takes. Obviously that was not an option here! I did tidy up some minor stumbling over my words, but it was a oner, basically. To make that slightly easier, I wrote much of the script phonetically rather than, y’know, the way things are actually spelled. I’ve left all that intact, because why not? But if it looks a little strange, that’s why.

I got to learn a new phoneme, too! The ł in Kinłitsosinil is a lateral fricative, in which the tongue is pressed against the upper front teeth and air flows around the sides of the tongue. The description that helped me most (if I even got in the neighborhood of correct pronunciation) is that it’s kind of similar to the strong L in the word “clue.”

Regarding the release schedule, I wrote a little about this earlier in the month, but the long and the short of it is that my (personal) schedule is far different from what it was back when I could release an episode every other week. I would very much like to return to that kind of regular schedule, but I’m not sure when that might be realistic. Episodes will continue to be released somewhat sporadically, as often as I’m able.

Update 2023-05-30: Listener Oz has generously sent in some photos to share from their trip to the National Museum Of Nuclear Science And History in Albuquerque! There’s some really cool stuff in here, including a Delorean (natch), some civilian uranium artifacts, a replica of the Gadget from the Trinity test (the original is unavailable due to being uniformly dispersed across the entire earth), and one of the uranium cubes mentioned in the episode! Author Miriam Hiebert is also on the left side of that particular frame. Click for big!

Just great stuff. I’d love to visit someday. Thanks, Oz!

Tribal lands are politically complex entities. They are self-governing; they are not accountable to, nor a part of, the states that surround them. This has been firmly established by the federal government.

Their resistance was certainly aided by the non-intervention of nearby states.

However, the national government also says that the reservation is technically still on federal land. This was established in US v. Kagama, an 1886 US Supreme Court case. Justice Samuel Miller infamously concluded the court’s opinion like so:

The power of the general [United States] government over these remnants of a race once powerful, now weak and diminished in numbers, is necessary to their protection, as well as to the safety of those among whom they dwell. It must exist in that government, because it never has existed anywhere else; because the theater of its exercise is within the geographical limits of the United States; because it has never been denied; and because it alone can enforce its laws on all the tribes.”

Impressive that the court managed to assert its supremacy in more than one way.

The Navajo language does now have several words for radiation, as well as many geological and medical terms that were unknown in the community 100 years ago.

To really drive home the volume of liquid released by the tailings dam, watch this live feed of Horseshoe Falls for two minutes and 17 seconds. (It may be difficult to see if it’s currently nighttime in Canada.)

It seems very progressive for the Joliot-Curies to hyphenate their surnames like that — and it was, but some historians wonder if Joliot wasn’t perhaps capitalizing on the cultural cachet conferred by the Curie cognomen.

The joke from Kistiakowsky’s journal was actually rather tame. It went like this: “A young lady was going to be married and went to see her physician about birth control. The physician said, well, just eat an apple. She asked before or after, and he said, no, instead.”

When asked about Boris Pash, Kistiakowsky had this to say: “Colonel Boris Pash—a really wild Russian, an extreme right wing, sort of Ku Klux Klan enthusiast. He was active before the war in ferreting out information about Oppenheimer and he testified at the hearings in a very bad way. He was really quite a character, this Boris Pash.” (I have found no evidence to indicate Boris Pash was actually a KKK enthusiast.)

The captured scientists were kept at a farmhouse in England. At one point, the following exchange happened:

Diebner: “I wonder whether there are microphones installed here?”

Heisenberg: “Microphones installed? (Laughter) Oh, no, they’re not as cute as all that. I don’t think they know the real Gestapo methods; they’re a bit old-fashioned in that respect.”

The reason we know about this exchange is because, naturally, the Americans were recording all their conversations with secretly installed microphones.

Of all the projects one could fairly call a “Nazi science experiment,” it’s amazing that their atomic research is one of the more innocuous ones.

Episode Script

You’re listening to The Episodic Table Of Elements, and I’m absolutely thrilled to be here. Each episode, we take a look at the fascinating true stories behind one element on the periodic table.

Today, we’re enriching our knowledge of uranium.

In the last episode, I mentioned that every element is interesting enough to warrant precisely one episode. I regret this phrasing, because uranium easily warrants several hours worth of episodes. How could we possibly fit in all the fascinating stories there are to tell? From Trinity to Chernobyl, Stuxnet to Zaporizhzhia, I wager one could easily write 92 episodes about element 92.

Nonetheless, my (entirely arbitrary) policy still stands. If carbon gets only one episode, then everybody gets only one episode. So I’d like to avoid retelling the same stories that have already been told quite capably many, many times before. Instead, I’d like to share two tales from uranium’s history that some listeners might not have heard before.

For starters, the worst radioactive accident in U.S. history.

Now, hold on, that sounds like the kind of thing pretty much everyone should know about, doesn’t it? Often the name of the location of such a disaster becomes shorthand for the disaster itself: Three Mile Island, Fukushima, Barkon IV… Sadly, “Church Rock” doesn’t have the same recognition.1 2

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (stay with me, we’ll get back to the U.S.) Shinkolobwe was home to some of the purest uranium deposits in the world. That’s great, but it presented a exceptionally potent radiation hazard to those who worked the mine, and it gained some notoriety. The name “Shinkolobwe” comes from a local, particularly thorny fruit that has a nasty tendency to burn people long after it’s been cooked. It’s also slang for “a man who’s easygoing on the surface but becomes angry when provoked.”3

Europeans were quick to exploit this natural resource following its discovery in 1915. (The uranium, not the fruit.) Belgium, mostly, since they still claimed the territory as a colony, but Nazi Germany seized much of the Belgian uranium supply in 1940.

… Stick a pin in that for now, actually. We’ll come back to it.

Nearly all of the uranium used in the Manhattan Project came from Shinkolobwe, but when the U.S. government decided the country needed many thousands of atomic bombs, a domestic source of uranium was practically required. And soon enough, they found one! … although “domestic” can be a complicated word.

The site we’re focusing on was near the Four Corners — the place where the borders of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona meet at a single point. It was also unambiguously within the borders of Navajo Nation. Actually, hundreds of suitable locations were found within the Nation’s borders, and also on Pueblo and Hopi land. But we’re looking at a place called Kinłitsosinil.4 also known as Church Rock.5 6 7 8 9 10 11

The Navajo (or Dih-neh in the Navajo language) had already spent decades keeping avaricious surveyors and would-be oil barons off their land. They used bureaucracy when possible, and firearms when necessary.12

Things were different by the late 40s, though. The new covetous party wasn’t some snaggle-toothed prospector, or conniving tycoon. The Navajo had to deal with Uncle Sam himself — a uniquely persuasive fellow! The government made promises of jobs and economic development; workers might even receive royalties from the mining operations. Whenever that line was unconvincing, they also threatened to withhold funding for essential social services.

So despite considerable local controversy, uranium mines started to riddle the landscape. And at least one of the government’s promises to the Navajo came true: Many thousands of jobs were created, most of them filled by Navajo workers.

We like to talk about creating jobs in the US, but rarely do we talk about what kinds of jobs are created. Whether those jobs are satisfying, whether they pay a livable wage, whether they provide a remotely safe environment.

If you are familiar with the history of the mining industry, from this podcast or anywhere else, you will not be surprised that these jobs failed on every front.

The pay varied, but ranged from minimum wage, to well below minimum wage. But there wasn’t a lot of choice among careers. For many within the Navajo Nation, “uranium miner” was the only job available. This was also most Navajos’ first experience with wage labor, something that only became necessary after the US government spent decades methodically exterminating their livestock, and criminalizing centuries-old cultural practices.

There was a clear divide among the workforce.

Navajo workers made up most of the mining crews, while their bosses were usually white, better paid, and far away from the most hazardous work. And make no mistake: It was extremely hazardous, and, those hazards were well known at the time.

As far back as the 16th century, Episodic Table alums Agricola and Paracelsus both noted that some peculiar diseases were prevalent among pitchblende miners.13 14 15 16 By the 1870s, doctors had determined that the uranium itself was causing lung cancer among miners, and by the 1940s, scientists were starting to understand the mechanisms by which this happens.

But the Navajos didn’t know any of that. Literacy was rare at the time, and knowledge of radiation completely absent. The Navajo language had no word for radiation at the time, and few of the miners spoke English.

These are problems, but surmountable ones. Find an effective way to inform the miners of the dangerous conditions, and ensure adequate protections are in place to minimize the harm.

The miners were never informed of the dangerous conditions, and there were almost no protections.

For instance, a steady flow of fresh air is even more important than usual in a uranium mine, since radon gas will otherwise accumulate in the tunnels. Yet ventilation here was essentially nonexistent, mostly relying on the hope of an occasional breeze rolling through.17

Officials and doctors were well aware that these practices would have some very predictable consequences. The U. S. Public Health Service capitalized on the opportunity to turn the whole situation into a human testing experiment. The PHS did not inform its subjects about the health risks they were exposed to, the health risks that were so worth studying.18 19 20 On the contrary, great effort was taken to ensure that such knowledge did not become widespread.

When one study concluded that uranium is indeed a radiation hazard, the Insurance Branch of the Atomic Energy Commission requested that the results be classified. As one official wrote:

We can see the possibility of a shattering effect on the morale of the employees if they become aware that there was substantial reason to question the standards of safety under which they are working. In the hands of ~labor unions~ the results of this study would add substance to demands for extra-hazardous pay … knowledge of the results of this study might increase the number of claims of occupational injury due to radiation and place a powerful weapon in the hands of a plaintiff’s attorney.”21

In the subsequent decades, hundreds of Navajo miners would die of lung cancer, almost certainly caused by ongoing occupational exposure to radiation. It’s difficult to say precisely how else — or how many — miners’ long-term health may have been affected, especially by other cancers and kidney disease.22

But it wasn’t only the miners who were exposed to this increased risk. Radioactive material was treated carelessly, almost maliciously. Mountains of waste were piled up right next to families’ homes. New buildings were unwittingly built with irradiated earth. Mining companies pumped highly contaminated water right into residential areas, where it collected in pools that looked, smelled, and tasted perfectly clean. In the Navajo Nation, babies are born even today with concentrations of uranium higher than 95% of the U.S. population. Not the baby population — the entire population.23 24 25

Surely all of that deserves to be widely known for its own sake, but lamentably, it is merely the background for this story.

By 1979, over 700 mines had been built on Navajo land.26 27 The largest was at Church Rock, a rural chapter of the Navajo Nation five miles from Gallup, New Mexico. Partly to address some of the most outrageous health concerns just mentioned, the plant had additional safety measures in place.28 29

In particular, United Nuclear Corporation built an artificial pond to contain the uranium mill’s tailings — its waste. Y’know, so it didn’t get dumped directly into people’s homes. But on July 16, 1979, this safety feature was the cause of an unparalleled disaster.

That morning, residents woke to clear blue skies and the sound of water rushing through the bed of the Rio Puerco.30 The dam that held back the tailings pond collapsed, allowing three hundred fifty-six million liters of radioactive waste to spill far and wide. A figure like that is practically incomprehensible, but by way of comparison, that’s the same amount of water that cascades over Niagara’s Horseshoe Falls in two minutes and seventeen seconds.31

That deluge carried some of the most hazardous elements we’ve come to know. Radioactive ones, like thorium, radium, polonium, and leftover uranium, but also plenty of regular toxic metals, like cadmium, selenium, and lead.32 33 It was also highly acidic, with a pH around 1.2 — somewhere between stomach acid, and battery acid.34 35 36

Obviously there were ill effects. The liquid burned the feet of both a little boy and an elderly woman who waded in.37 Livestock who drank from to the Puerco dropped dead. Sewage lines in downtown Gallup overflowed with the frothy chemical slurry.

Usually when water rushes through the desert, life blooms in its wake.

But actually, the day the dam broke was not especially terrible, in terms of casualties. Nobody died from the flood. The real damage came over the following days, and decades.

United Nuclear started repairing its dam as soon as it learned of the break, but nobody told the people living nearby anything, for several days. When the Indian Health Service finally did issue a warning, they exclusively used English-language radio and signage at first.

There haven’t been good studies of the land and people affected by the disaster, but what data does exist is about as bad as you’d expect. Cancer rates in the area doubled from the 1970s to the 1990s. Kidney failure, heart disease, and birth defects have also increased. Uranium has seeped into every inch of the landscape and every resident’s body.38

Much of the Navajo Nation did not and still does not have running water,39 so they continued to use water from the Puerco. Those who do have tap water — in this community, and as far away as Arizona — were not shielded from these ill effects. One scientist said, “For decades, the people were unknowingly drinking poison water.”40

And this disaster — again, the worst of its kind — was entirely preventable. Two years before the accident, independent inspectors noted small cracks in the dam wall. They urged UNC to conduct repairs, and frequent inspections of the dam. The following year, worse cracks were found, but neither the head of the company nor the appropriate regulatory agencies were told. Even before these discoveries, United Nuclear was well aware of the danger! According to the Army Corps Of Engineers, when the facility was constructed, “the company’s own consultant predicted that the soil under this dam was susceptible to extreme settling which was likely to cause [its] cracking and subsequent failure.”41 UNC took no action in response to any of these warning signs. Instead, they filled the tailings pond with more waste than it was designed to hold.42

The response to the dam collapse was weak from not only the government, but also the media. A couple small newspapers included a short story about the incident on page 8 or 14.43 The New York Times included an AP article in its November 18 edition… on page 55.44 A piece in the Washington Post downplayed the possible health effects, and reassured its readers that the area affected by the spill was quote “sparsely populated.”45

This is especially… interesting, because only fourteen weeks earlier, Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear plant suffered a partial meltdown. Much like at Church Rock, no one was injured or died in the immediate aftermath. Unlike Church Rock, long-term damage to the environment and population was minimal, perhaps none.46

But a media frenzy followed that incident, and two hundred thousand people protested nuclear power and weapons in New York City. A highly visible remediation effort at Three Mile Island lasted more than a decade and cost over a billion dollars,47 Nearly one hundred million dollars have been doled out as publicly documented compensation to nearby citizens.48

Church Rock saw no such care. Three months after the accident, UNC had only cleaned one percent of the solid waste.49 When the residents asked Governor Bruce King to declare the site a disaster area, he refused — meaning the availability of federal aid would be extremely limited. After 1990, some miners could apply for payment through the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, a small amount of money available to anyone, who contracted cancer from jobsite radiation hazards during the Cold War, but the victims of the Church Rock spill were never recognized.50 51 52

All this even though Church Rock exposed people to over three times as much radiation, and Three Mile Island certainly experienced none of the existential problems that United Nuclear exacerbated in Navajoland.

You would think that anti-nuclear activists would have immediately latched on to a second, much worse nuclear accident so soon after the last one, and yet, that did not happen. It’s impossible to explain why definitively, but it sure looks like racial bias might play a role. The people most affected by the Church Rock spill are Navajos, and the areas surrounding Three Mile Island were majority white. Reporters are humans just like anyone else, and journalistic negligence can be caused by unexamined prejudice just as well as it helps feed further prejudice. Plus, the United States’ history with Indigenous people is not exactly one of mutual benefit.53

We can, however, try to redress our past failures in the present day.

Part of that is making sure people actually know the story of America’s worst (known) accident involving radioactive material. But it requires action in addition to explanation.

The incident happened one awful day over forty years ago. But it’s also happened every day since then, up to and including today. We have a responsibility to end the disaster.

It’s an interesting coincidence that the Church Rock spill happened thirty-four years to the day after the Trinity test, the ultimate do-or-die moment for the Manhattan Project. (and kind of for everyone else, too!)

While writing this episode, I looked into the life of George Kistiakowsky, since he worked on the Manhattan Project and taught chemistry at this institution for over four decades.54 55

And he is quite the interesting figure! Born in Kyiv, he fought for the losing side in the Russian Revolution, studied in Berlin, then became an assistant professor at Harvard. His contribution to the atomic bomb was rather crucial: he led the development of its explosive lenses, which focus the detonation’s energy and kick off the fission reaction quickly and efficiently.

He later served for a year and a half as President Eisenhower’s Special Assistant For Science And Technology. During this time he wrote daily in his diary, recording in great detail such happenings as Khrushchev’s visit to Camp David and the U-2 spy plane debacle, with equal attention given to such quotidian proceedings as budget decisions, and a joke someone told about a young woman asking her doctor for birth control.56

He’s actually going to appear in the upcoming film Oppenheimer, played by Norwegian actor Trond Fausa.57

Richard Feynman and Ernest Lawrence are in the movie, too, portrayed by Jack Quaid58 and Josh Hartnett,59 respectively.

Finally, a movie that isn’t afraid to show scientists as the achingly attractive people they invariably are.

Sadly, for as interesting as Kistiakowsky is, we shan’t be learning a single thing about him today. In looking for tales untold, I tried to avoid directly discussing the United States’ inaugural atomic undertaking.

So, with all due respect to the good professor, I’d like to talk about a different country’s attempt to crack the atom.

It is a very good thing that Adolf Hitler never obtained a nuclear arsenal. I trust that this statement requires no Führer explanation.

During World War II, though, high-ranking Allied scientists and military officials were extremely concerned that the Nazis might have a sophisticated atomic program — and with good reason.

After all, German engineering, metallurgy, and weaponry were all legendary. Back in episode 42, we learned about the Paris Gun, a massive artillery weapon from World War I that fired upon the French capital, from the next country over. Hitler publicly preyed upon this reputation by frequently making vague allusions to “superweapons” that the Wehrmacht would soon possess. And, indeed, Germany became the first belligerent to deploy jet-powered aircraft, and later fired the world’s first cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles, (primarily against civilian targets).60

But there was an even more proximal precedent to atomic bombs. In 1938, German scientists were the first anywhere to witness nuclear fission — and then they stopped sharing any further discoveries.61 The Allies had no idea how much progress German scientists might have made in the following years, but the available evidence was worrisome. Germany had been openly stockpiling uranium for years, and operated a heavy water plant in occupied Norway.62 63

Additionally, America acquired Axis communications connected to the conflict, connoting a conceivable capacity for upcoming Teutonic atomic apocalypse.64

All these factors, along with one very persuasive letter from Albert Einstein (and ghost written by Leo Szilard), were reasons why the United States sought to develop an atomic bomb as quickly as possible. But with the stakes being cataclysmic, that wasn’t enough. The Allies also needed to learn everything they could about the German nuclear program — and end it.65

Such an effort fell partly under the purview of the Manhattan Project, since almost anyone who knew anything about nuclear fission was part of the Manhattan Project. That means it became the responsibility of our old friend, Director of the Manhattan Project, Brigadier General Leslie Groves.

By the way, Groves will also be in that Oppenheimer movie, played by none other than Matt Damon.66

This remains an ad-free program. It’s just that science-history only gets cinematic attention once every few years, and this time, the entire ensemble is nearly as impressive as the people they’re portraying.

But forget Matt Damon and Cillian Murphy and whoever else. Groves assembled a cast of truly colorful characters — physicists and warriors:

Colonel Boris Pash would command the mission. He had been born in San Francisco, but fought against the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution alongside his father, Russian Orthodox priest Tea-dor-ye Pashkovsky. (You would think this would provide common ground, but George Kistiakowsky actually held an extremely low opinion of Pash.67) He’s not alone, either. Pash was a no-nonsense kind of guy with an attitude some found abrasive — perhaps a trait he gained while teaching phys ed and science at Hollywood High School.68 69

Moe Berg was a famous Major League Baseball player — one of the league’s very few Jewish players.70 71 He had already been an MLB catcher for fifteen seasons when the war broke out. After his rookie season, he chose to take classes at the Sorbonne in Paris rather than work on his one-eight-six batting average, but this was not terribly unusual for a man who fluently spoke half a dozen languages, could recite all of Edgar Allan’s poetry, and graduated from Columbia Law School.

Samuel HHOWD-schmidt led the scientific half of the mission. He was a Dutch American physicist teaching at the University of Michigan, and was the sort of fellow who once learned to read ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics… accidentally.72 His real claim to fame, though, was the concept of “electron spin,” which he jointly proposed with a colleague. (See the episode on neodymium for more on that concept.) That work brought him together with Werner Heisenberg — likely the preeminent physicist in Germany at the time — who helped hhowd-schmidt achieve the recognition he deserved. The two became good friends.73 74 75

Edwin Kemble was the mission’s Deputy Science Director. He was a graduate of and professor at Harvard University, and had actually introduced the first course on quantum theory to the school’s physics curriculum. Eventually, he worked his way up to Department Chair.76 77

There were eventually about forty field agents, all told. The outfit called themselves “al-sauce,” which is the Greek word, for “Groves.” Sometimes they were called “Lightning-A.” Together they would dart between the front lines all over Europe, crossing into enemy territory in a desperate attempt to learn more about the Nazi nuclear program.78

Incidentally, Groves did not appreciate the team’s little nominal wink and nod toward him. Code names were supposed to be “deliberately innocuous,” as he put it, “in order to avoid drawing undue attention to [The Manhattan Project].” At first he wanted to change the name to anything else, but ultimately decided that would only draw more attention to the mission.79

The team started in Algeria, soon moving to Italy, but made little progress. The Nazis had recently occupied Rome, and sadly we don’t have time to get into the fascinating story of the Italian resistance, which involves the Sicilian Mafia’s charity work; Catholic priests conducting radio surveillance; and an epidemic, of a fake disease called Syndrome K.80

What is pertinent to our story today is that Germany’s grip on the city was tighter than the Allies expected. The Al-sauce team learned a little about the German rocketry program, but not much about nuclear weapons. That began to change, slowly, as they pivoted toward France.

For instance, Al-sauce scored a huge win in August 1944 when they tracked down frederICH Joliot-Curie, husband of Nobel Prize-winning scientist Irene Joliot-Curie and son-in-law to Nobel Prize-winning scientist Marie Curie. He also won a Nobel Prize, I guess.

At the time, he was at the top of the team’s Most Wanted list, suspected of being a Soviet sympathizer, or perhaps a Nazi collaborator. But when the Americans arrived, he was glad to see them, and freely explained that he was staying in Paris to prevent the Nazis from acquiring his laboratory equipment and research. He assured hhowd-schmidt, his interrogator, that Germany wasn’t anywhere close to producing atomic bombs, and he provided information on several German physicists who were part of the nuclear program.81

This was all good intel, and in truth, Joliot-Curie was a highly active member of the resistance. On the one hand, he leveraged an impressive bureaucratic apparatus to prevent French scientists from being deported to Germany. On the other hand, he and his comrades would occasionally sneak into police headquarters, pour some of the chief’s nigh-limitless supply of champagne down the drain, and use the bottles for molotov cocktails. He even invented an extra-spicy variety using potassium chlorate and sulfuric acid.82 83 84 85

He did all this in the summer heat, so, reportedly, he and his crew were shirtless and glistening with sweat while crafting these improvised weapons.

Al-sauce spent the next several months creeping toward Germany, sometimes ahead of the advancing Allied forces, sometimes in their shadow. They’d occasionally find a prominent scientist holed up in his lab, or uncover a modest cache of uranium ore. But the team really hit the jackpot in April 1945.

That’s when Pash led a team that secured over one thousand, one hundred tons of uranium ore from a salt mine in the recently captured city of Stassfurt — a task that had to be carried out quickly and quietly, since the trove was technically within the occupation zone allocated to the Soviet Union.

Remember how the Nazis captured practically all of Belgium’s plentiful uranium stock from Shinkolobwe? This was where they stashed it, and apparently, forgot about it.

In a memo to the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, Groves wrote, “The capture of this material, which was the bulk of uranium supplies available in Europe, would seem to remove definitely any possibility of the Germans making any use of an atomic bomb in this war.”

As the threat of an Axis atomic bomb diminished, the Al-sauce mission shifted its focus to its secondary objective: Seizing any files, materials, and personnel related to the now-less-threatening Nazi nuclear program. That would surely all be valuable in its own right, but more importantly, it would stay out of the hands of the Soviets. And the French, and basically anyone else who might be interested.86

Of all those strategic resources, the most valuable was the aforementioned personnel. Not personnel files, we’re talking about the flesh-and-blood German scientists, whom the Al-sauce team collected like Pokemon. By the spring of 1945, they had taken into custody dozens of German scientists, including Carl fon veitz-ecker, Max fon Laue, Otto Hahn, and Walther Gerlach.

The detainees’ attitudes varied upon their capture. When an Al-sauce officer entered Otto Hahn’s private office, he solemnly looked up and said, in English, “I have been expecting you.” Carl fon veitz-ecker was relieved to be captured by the Americans rather than the Soviets, (can’t imagine why!) but he became rather agitated, when they raided his wine cellar.

Werner Heisenberg remained frustratingly out of reach. The prior December, Moe Berg — the baseball player — posed as a researcher to attend a lecture Heisenberg gave in Zurich, with a Beretta in one pocket and a cyanide pill in the other. But when the lecture failed to indicate any special knowledge of atomic fission, and actually appeared to bore the other, legitimate physicists in attendance, Berg decided not to employ the weapons at his disposal. Heisenberg had remained out of reach since then.87 88

The Americans knew that Heisenberg had moved his entire scientific team to a small town on the edge of the Black Forest after Allied bombing rendered Berlin too unsafe. In April 1945, Lightning-A approached the town, ready to apprehend the research and researchers.

What they found was a dead-silent, dusty Bavarian village, with a castle looming over tall, sheer limestone cliffs. In a natural cave beneath that castle were the abandoned remnants of Heisenberg’s lab: A large aluminum cylinder with a tangle of wires, pipes, and electrical cables leading in all directions. A message was scrawled on a chalkboard: “Let rest be holy to mankind. Only crazy people are in a hurry.” (Sort of like having one of those motivational posters of a kitten saying “Hang in there!”)

Compared to the sprawling behemoth that was the Manhattan Project, which employed hundreds of thousands of Americans working furiously around the clock, this scene struck hhowd-schmidt as rather pathetic. He later wrote, “Sometimes we wondered if our government had not spent more money on our intelligence mission, than the Germans had spent on their whole project.”89

Al-sauce captured a lot of scientists that day, but the big H was not one of them. The search would need to continue if they wanted to keep him out of Soviet hands.

Or at least, that was the official motivation. For hhowd-schmidt, the search for Heisenberg was also personal. Several years prior, he had confronted Heisenberg, betrayed that his former friend would devote himself to a fascist government that publicly mistreated him, that he didn’t even believe in. He had job offers in America, why wouldn’t he leave the country that was collapsing beneath his feet?

Heisenberg’s principled answer was not at all uncertain.

He needed to stay and fight, he said, defend German science and values. “Germany needs me,” he said. By the end of the war, one would be hard-pressed to name anything he had done to keep the nation on the right path.

Al-sauce wouldn’t capture Heisenberg for another couple weeks, but hhowd-schmidt did find and search his empty office later that day. It was inside an old mill, and stripped clean of anything valuable. At least, anything strategically valuable. Prominently displayed on Heisenberg’s desk was a framed photograph of himself alongside his old friend, Samuel hhowd-schmidt.

If you’re new to The Episodic Table Of Elements, we like to finish each episode by exploring some of the ways an interested person could add this particular piece of the universe to their collection of elements. This endeavor has, admittedly, started to get a bit difficult as we’ve approached the bottom of the periodic table, but I’m pleased to say that uranium is not even in the top ten most difficult elements to acquire. It’s actually, kind of easy.

Not as easy as it used to be, unfortunately, but if you’re on the lookout and willing to spend a little money, you can collect a curiosity, from an era that treated radioactivity a little more casually.

Perhaps the best example of this is the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Laboratory, a chemistry set that was sold in 1950.90 91 92 For just fifty dollars, the radiation-curious child could get their hands on a fairly sophisticated set of scientific instruments, including a Geiger counter, spinthariscope, and a cloud chamber. Element samples included zinc-65, lead-210, polonium-210, and of course uranium-238. Most enticing of all, the kit included a comic titled “Learn How Dagwood Splits The Atom!” written with the help of none other than General Leslie Groves. source

The set only remained on the market for a year, due to poor sales. Apparently the ionizing radiation wasn’t actually the main concern, but rather, the price tag. In 2023 dollars, it would cost a little over 600 bucks.93 (And it doesn’t even play Jedi: Survivor!)

It might be surprising to learn that uranium has been actively used as a weapon of war for decades. Not for its fissile properties, but for its density. About 70% more dense than lead, it’s useful both as armor, and as armor-piercing rounds of ammunition. Only depleted uranium is used this way, which is uranium that could not be used to start any kind of nuclear fission. But it is still radioactive, not to mention one of the more toxic metals, and its use is not uncontroversial. An individual bullet is rather safe (so long as it’s stationary), but when they litter a battlefield by the thousands, they may cause significant harm long after they’ve been fired.

At any rate, you’re not likely to have access to that materiel, unless you’re a member of the armed forces in an especially armed and forceful situation. At least in the US, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has strong opinions about who gets to add those to their element collection.

Aside from military gear, the NRC seems unconcerned with policing the kind of samples an element collector is likely to acquire, which tend to fall under the category of “small” or “unimportant” quantities of “source materials.” These regulations have not been rigorously tested in the court of law, and I am, for many reasons, incapable of providing legal advice.

There are actually many accessible, civilian sources of uranium, from antique glassware to modern-day scientific instruments. But to really make your element collection stand out, you might want a cube of natural uranium metal.

Not the kind that anyone could easily buy for about a thousand dollars. I’m talking about some very specific uranium cubes.

Remember that nuclear reactor the Nazis built in a cave beneath a Bavarian castle? (I get to write some fun sentences for this show.) Not all the pieces were there when the Al-sauce team found it. Conspicuously missing was the fuel.

That reactor had a truly unique design. Metal cables dangled hundreds of small uranium cubes into a tank of heavy water, which acted as the moderator.94 (The moderator wound up being somewhat superfluous — they never achieved the critical mass necessary to kick off a self-sustaining reaction.) Veitz-ecker and Hahn revealed the spot where they had buried the cubes, and Al-sauce hastily loaded them into a truck, and skipped town before the French caught on.

A number of those two-inch cubes found their way into American pockets. (Highly relatable!) But today, almost all of these thousand-plus little blocks are completely lost. Many of them could have been enriched, and used in the bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.95 96 97That’s what happened to that Belgian uranium.

But they’re not all lost. About a dozen of them have popped up over the years, in the Smithsonian, in a German river,98 in the trunk of someone’s car in a Maryland parking lot…99 100 101

It’s just enough to suggest that dozens more might be scattered across the globe, just waiting to be rediscovered.

Miriam E. Hiebert is a materials scientist and Smithsonian fellow who has spent years trying to do just that. When I asked how the search is going, she said, “We believe we have pieced together the most likely story of what happened to the cubes at the end of the war. But there was no huge discovery of lost crates of uranium unfortunately.” She actually has a book coming out in July, “The Uranium Club: Unearthing The Lost Relics Of The Nazi Nuclear Program,” which looks like the most comprehensive search for these blocks anyone has performed, if you’d like to know the latest chapter in this saga.102 103 104 105 106

So, who knows! Anyone listening to this episode might just happen to have one of these historical artifacts buried deep in a long-forgotten box in the dustiest corner of their closet, a tchotchke inherited from some great-uncle. I’d recommend walking around your house with a Geiger counter, but that kind of behavior does tend to make one’s family worry.

If, somehow, you do find one of these dark, blank cubes, it might feel strangely heavy — and not only because of its considerable mass. The little thing might have had a pretty interesting journey, since it was recovered eighty years ago by that motley crew of atomic spies. Prior to that, it would have passed through the hands of some of the most brilliant scientists who’ve ever lived, working in service of one of history’s cruelest regimes. And before all that, it had to be pulled from the Earth — in rural Germany, occupied Congo, or wherever — by a team of miners who might have given their lives. Willingly, or otherwise.

Those of you who are hearing this episode live, at Harvard’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, are especially privileged.

One of the cubes was brought stateside by none other than Edwin Kemble, the Al-sauce officer who was also chair of Harvard’s Physics Department. And he donated it to the school’s Science Center, which occasionally lends it out for classroom demonstrations, and where it remains to this day.107

So maybe you’ll never add one of those historical artifacts to your collection. But it is part of your collection. And maybe it’s better for an object of such illustrious provenance to be available, for mass, enrichment.


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19 Replies to “92. Uranium: Two Untold Tales (Live At Harvard)”

  1. Is there going to be an episode about neptunium and are ways to get this transuranium element?

    Also is uranium the last natural occurring element?

      1. I was actually able to see one of those uranium cubes at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in New Mexico. It’s definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area and if you want pictures of the cube, as well as the rest of the museum, and have a way to send pictures, I would be glad to.

        1. I’m jealous! I wasn’t able to see the one at Harvard (something about radioactive objects requiring additional shielding, go figure) and I would love to share any photos of the New Mexico cubes you have! Feel free to send them to contact@episodictable.com. Thanks so much! (And also for your concern — I’m doing much better now, yes!)

    1. Uranium isn’t the last naturally occurring element, but it is the last one that exists on earth in large quantities. Past uranium, we’re mostly in the realm of synthetic elements.

      Neptunium will be the next episode! I haven’t done a ton of research yet, but I would guess that acquisition of neptunium will be challenging, to say the least.

  2. When somebody grows up, they stop blaming the past. You’re a kid and no list of scholarly-looking references can change that. You just want to destroy those who came before you and bask in your own transcendence.

    Since you’re incapable of doing it, I’ll answer Michelle Vu’s question (above). Michelle, there are FEWER than 325 elements(1), and probably no more than 200. Anything which can be a nuclide (type of atomic nucleus) will form or have formed naturally somewhere in the universe. In most cases, they form and disappear again within four days after the supernova or neutron star merger which formed them(2). One exception probably lies between Ubq (124) and Ube (129), where elements which persist for up to a few thousand years may occur. It should be noted that beta decay from the neutron dripline will populate this region (something which does not occur in the vicinity o N = 184 or N = 308/318). A second exception may lie between Uqn and Uqp (140 to 145), but that one is very, very uncertain.

    If you count everything gravitationally or electromagnetically bound to earth, there are nearly as many elements in or on earth as in the universe as a whole. The sun and other cosmic bodies are just as good as people are at making particle accelerators. Natural accelerators are sloppy but beam currents are in the thousands of amperes (considering earth as the target) and bombardment time has (so far) topped four billion years. Once in a while, once every billion years or so, three Gd 157 nuclei will meet simultaneously, with just the right orientation, and with just the right energy to make a nucleus of Uhq 465. But energized-particle reaction in the atmosphere or near-earth space can only create oddities, not components of the planet. For that, an element must be present in quantity and continuously present – the odd atom isn’t really a part of what the world is made up of.

    By that standard, there are 100 element which exist in today’s earth – hydrogen through fermium. Uranium 238 fissions spontaneiously with a branch ration BR(SF) = 0.0000005. Those fissions produce around 2 free neutrons each. Some of those neutrons are captured by other U 238 atoms to generate Pu 239. Some are captured by Pu 239 to produce Pu 240, and so on. In concentrated uranium ore, the process of infrequent neutron capture (s process) can reach fermium(3). It rarely happens, and only in selected spots, but even fermium is a part of the earth.

    1. “The Final Element”, Elements Wiki.
    2. numerous articles in Elements Wiki, all of which contain references back to source material.
    3. unpublished reaction network calculation; publication expected this summer.

    1. ACDB, Please direct your criticism and all that follows it to the nearest rock, preferably one whose name starts with a U.

    1. For any questions of position, I don’t think I can do a better job than the table itself! https://ptable.com/

      I don’t know about Seaborg or Bohr being in Oppenheimer. They very well could be, but I don’t recall seeing their names on the IMDB page. I do believe Seaborg will get his first substantial appearance on this show in the next episode, but I’m still very early in the writing process.

  3. My goodness this was brilliant–the research, writing, and telling. Learning about the people and how history actually happened makes science (and the past) even more engrossing. Thank you to the Harvard students who arranged for you to visit and talk or lecture. Every relevant group and institution should be competing for your work. Hollywood’s new movie sounds like a winner in entertainment and at least it is about real people etc. Your production goes deeper and I aver that it is unmatchable in capturing an audience’s mind.

    1. Thank you so much for such kind words, Leynia. I’m so happy to hear how much you enjoyed the episode, especially after such a long wait. I hope the show continues to satisfy, ideally at a slightly faster clip!

    1. Off top of my head, and apologies for any misspellings of element names, we have:
      Einsteinium, named presumably for Albert Einstein.
      Curium, persumably named for either Marie Curie specifically or her and her husband or their family in general(I think there were other Curies working in physics, but Marie and her husband are the most famous.
      Fermium, Seaborgium, and Cupernicium named for famous scientists whose first names I don’t know.
      I believe the guy who first proposed the periodic table has an element named after him.
      Lawrencium sounds like it was named for someone named Lawrence.
      Americium, while persumably named for the American Continents, is indirectly named after Amerigo Vespucci, for whom the Americas are named.

      And I suspect there are other Period 7 elements named for famous scientists where either I forget the element’s name or don’t recognize the origin of its name.(In my defense, my middle school textbooks only listed 109 elements and elements after Lawrencium only had their systematic names such as Unniloctium for element 108(which I had to ask Alexa just now to know it’s Hassium and have no clue its name origin).

      1. There’s Bohrium after Niels Bohr, Nobelium after Alfred Nobel, Roentgenium after Wilhelm Röntgen, which is also a unit of measurement for ionizing radiation. In addition there is Meitnerium after Lise Meitner, Rutherfordium after Ernest Rutherford, Mendelevium after (who else?) Dmitri Mendeleev, Fermium after Enrico Fermi, and Seaborgium after Glenn Seaborg, in addition to all the elements you mentioned, and the ones that I couldn’t think of off the top of my head.

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