Radioactive object found near Nazi-era nuclear research site

A German man's metal detecting hobby makes history.

September 24, 2017 13:45
3 minute read.
Mussolini Hitler

A picture taken in September 1937, in Munich, shows German Chancellor Adolf Hitler (R) riding in a car with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini while the crowd gives the fascist salute.. (photo credit: SNEP / AFP)


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German police are investigating a 64-year-old man who found a radioactive metal object in Oranienburg, Germany. The discovery has potentially huge implications for the study of Nazi nuclear history.

Bernd Thälmann uncovered the object when he was searching for treasure with a metal detector. The odd lump appeared to be metal and was picked up by the detector, but did not react when placed near a magnet, confounding its discoverer.

The man took the object back to his home, but became nervous and called the police a few days after the discovery.

The police tested the object and determined that it was radioactive. According to the German newspaper Berliner Kurier, Thälmann was placed under investigation for possessing "an unauthorized radioactive substance."

After the object's radioactivity was confirmed, police evacuated 15 residents near Thälmann's house and specialists swept the premises for more radioactive substances.

Oranienburg, a town in Brandenburg in northeastern Germany, was the site of secret Nazi-era research center. The center was part of Hitler's nuclear weapons project, nicknamed the Uranverein (Uranium Club), which sought to obtain nuclear capabilities for the Third Reich.

The facility was headed by German scientists Nikolaus Riehl and Günter Wirths, who later worked for the Soviet atomic bomb project after the fall of Hitler's Germany.

The Oranienburg facility's purpose was to enrich uranium oxide taken from South America and transform it into plutonium. The Oranienburg facility was known to the Allies by 1944.

In November 1944, the Alsos Mission — a team of US military and scientific personnel who were tasked with unearthing Germany's scientific developments — confirmed the Oranienburg center's uranium program.

Leslie Groves, commander of the Manhattan Project — the Allied nuclear program which ultimately created the first nuclear bomb — recommended that the Oranienburg facility be destroyed by air assault before the Red Army could get to the area and take the facility's equipment for themselves.

The facility was heavily bombed by the US Air Force in March 1945. Due to the uranium center and multiple other armament and chemical plants in the area, Oranienburg has more unexploded bombs than any other town in Germany, according to Deutsche Welle.

While the Manhattan Project successfully created nuclear weapons, the German nuclear program floundered. Much of this can be attributed to the purging of Jewish scientists and other political enemies of the Nazis when Hitler came to power.

Thousands of Jewish scientists, including Nobel laureates and dozens of theoretical physicists emigrated from Germany to the US and Britain. The most notable Jewish scientist to leave Germany and influence the Manhattan Project was Albert Einstein. In 1939, Hungarian-Jewish physicist Leo Szilard wrote a letter, which Einstein signed, to US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, urging the US to begin a nuclear weapons program before the Germans could obtain a bomb of their own.

While Einstein never worked on the Manhattan Project personally, Szilard did along with many other Jewish scientists, including German-born Hans Bethe, Hungarian-born John von Neumann, and Jewish-American J. Robert Oppenheimer. Enrico Fermi, the Italian physicist and creator of the first nuclear reactor, married a Jewish woman and left Italy in 1938 when the country enacted new racial laws which affected the marriage.

Thälmann's new discovery could shed more light on the Oranienburg facility and its remnants.

According to German police, Thälmann wanted to retrace his steps and find more evidence of the Nazi-era site, but he has not been cooperating with authorities and "refuses to provide information on the exact location.”

The criminal investigation is ongoing.

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