Heavy Water and the Wartime Race for Nuclear Energy: 1st Edition (Hardback) book cover

Heavy Water and the Wartime Race for Nuclear Energy

1st Edition

By Per F Dahl

CRC Press

416 pages

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Hardback: 9780750306331
pub: 1999-01-01
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Heavy water (deuterium oxide) played a sinister role in the race for nuclear energy during the World War II. It was a key factor in Germany's bid to harness atomic energy primarily as a source of electric power; its acute shortage was a factor in Japan's decision not to pursue seriously nuclear weaponry; its very existence was a nagging thorn in the side of the Allied powers. Books and films have dwelt on the Allies' efforts to deny the Germans heavy water by military means; however, a history of heavy water has yet to be written.

Filling this gap, Heavy Water and the Wartime Race for Nuclear Energy concentrates on the circumstances whereby Norway became the preeminent producer of heavy water and on the scientific role the rare isotope of hydrogen played in the wartime efforts by the Axis and Allied powers alike. Instead of a purely technical treatise on heavy water, the book describes the social history of the subject.

The book covers the discovery and early uses of deuterium before World War II and its large-scale production by Norsk Hydro in Norway, especially under German control. It also discusses the French-German race for the Norwegian heavy-water stocks in 1940 and heavy water's importance for the subsequent German uranium project, including the Allied sabotage and bombing of the Norwegian plants, as well as its lesser role in Allied projects, especially in the United States and Canada. The book concludes with an overall assessment of the importance and the perceived importance of heavy water for the German program, which alone staked everything on heavy water in its quest for a nuclear chain reaction.


"With his newest work of science history, … Dahl pulls off the remarkable feat of delivering both a scholarly work and a nail-biting thriller. … Per Dahl recounts all these events and many more. There is wisdom in his judicious treatment of persistent historical debates, including the rancorous argument that still rages about the motivations of Hahn, Werner Heisenberg, and the other members of the German 'Uranium Club.' His style is lively, his research thorough, his organization superb. Fortunately [the publisher] has matched Dahl's efforts by giving Heavy Water and the Wartime Race for Nuclear Energy the scholarly apparatus and handsome production it deserves."

-K. Paul Preuss, Current

"Dahl manages to combine scientific accuracy with a compelling storyline that keeps the pages turning. Like his cathode-ray book, the volume is meticulously researched. It is a remarkable read."

-Gordon Fraser, CERN Courier

"The story of heavy water during World War II may be a familiar one, if only from the 1962 movie 'The Heroes of Telemark.' But Dahl's book fills many of the gaps left in previous accounts by concentrating on the underlying technology and scientific arguments. The military adventure is cleverly interwoven with the scientific. The accounts of the commando raid on the Norsk Hydro plant and the bombing of the ferry are particularly gripping. Dahl also has a talent for sketching characters, and portrays a much more interesting and diverse cast than the 1962 movie's composite presentation of Kirk Douglas as the 'playboy scientist' and Richard Harris as the hotheaded Norwegian partisan."

-Chemistry and Industry

"This is a superbly researched book … and an excellent read. Even someone with little knowledge of those turbulent times will enjoy it. … The story of D2O is very much alive, and this book tells vividly its distinguished pedigree."

-Neutron News

"… a well-informed and up-to-date account of the history of nuclear physics up to 1945."


"… Per Dahl has produced a tour de force, leading the reader from the dawn of the nuclear era through the sabotage of the heavy water plants, and integrating those events with activities of British and American nuclear physicists."

-American Journal of Physics

"Per Dahl's unique qualifications make Heavy Water a success … Dahl and his publishers also deserve praise for providing a good choice of unusual photographs, a 'Chronology of Heavy Water,' and superb notes, bibliography, and indices."

-Intelligence and National Security, Vol. 16

"Per Dahl has written an outstanding, fascinating account of the discovery and applications of heavy water in the wartime race for nuclear energy, one that specialists and the general public alike will find intriguing."

-David C. Cassidy, Physics Today

"The historical scope of this book is much greater than the title would imply … It is clear that Per Dahl has chosen to tell a story full of action and high drama."

-A.P. French, Professor Emeritus of Physics, MIT

"With a history replete with stories of secrecy, jealousy, even international intrigue, Dahl … has written a quasi-spy novel that sacrifices little or no technical accuracy. He brings to lay readers readily understandable 50-year history of nuclear developments …"

-J.G. Morse, Colorado School of Mines

Table of Contents

Prologue: Fornebu Airport, March 12, 1940. Manchester and Paris, 1919. The neutron. Heavy water. Artificial radioactivity. Nuclear fission. Heavy water revisited. The British initiative. Germany army ordnance takes charge. Heavy water takes center stage. America joins the quest. Action vemork. Neutrons despite bombs. Wavering outlook for heavy water. Canada enters the race. Fears and facts on the continent. Swabian Jura and upper telemark: final events. Hiroshima revealed; further contestants for nuclear energy. Epilogue. Appendices. Abbreviations. Notes. Select bibliography. Name index. Subject index.

Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
SCIENCE / Nuclear Physics
SCIENCE / Physics