Günter Wirths (1 June 1911 – 26 January 2005) was a German chemist who was an authority on uranium production, especially reactor-grade. He worked at Auergesellschaft in the production of uranium for the Heereswaffenamt and its Uranverein project. In 1945, he was sent the Soviet Union to work on the Russian atomic bomb project. When he was released from the Soviet Union, he settled in West Germany, and worked at the Degussa company.
Wirths was a colleague of Nikolaus Riehl, who was the director of the scientific headquarters of Auergesellschaft. Auergesellschaft had a substantial amount of “waste” uranium from which it had extracted radium. After reading a paper in 1939 by Siegfried Flügge, on the technical use of nuclear energy from uranium, Riehl recognized a business opportunity for the company, and, in July of that year, went to the Heereswaffenamt (HWA, Army Ordnance Office) to discuss the production of uranium. The HWA was interested and Riehl committed corporate resources to the task. The HWA eventually provided an order for the production of uranium oxide, which took place in the Auergesellschaft plant in Oranienburg, north of Berlin. It was this that got Wirths involved with the production of uranium metal, which Auergesellschaft did for the Uranverein project of the Heereswaffenamt.
In the Soviet Union
Near the close of World War II, as American, British, and Russian military forces were closing in on Berlin, Riehl and some of his staff moved to a village west of Berlin, to try to ensure occupation by British or American forces. However, in mid-May 1945, with the assistance of Riehl’s colleague Karl Günter Zimmer, the Russian nuclear physicists Georgy Flerov and Lev Artsimovich showed up one day in NKVD colonel’s uniforms. The use of Russian nuclear physicists in the wake of Soviet troop advances to identify and “requisition” equipment, material, intellectual property, and personnel useful to the Russian atomic bomb project is similar to the American Operation Alsos. The military head of Alsos was Lt. Col. Boris Pash, former head of security on the American atomic bomb effort, the Manhattan Project, and its chief scientist was the eminent physicist Samuel Goudsmit. In early 1945, the Soviets initiated an effort similar to Alsos (Russian Alsos). Forty out of less than 100 Russian scientists from the Soviet atomic bomb project’s Laboratory 2 went to Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia in support of acquisitions for the project.
The two colonels requested that Riehl join them in Berlin for a few days, where he also met with nuclear physicist Yulii Borisovich Khariton, also in the uniform of an NKVD colonel. This sojourn in Berlin turned into 10 years in the Soviet Union. Riehl and his staff, including their families, were flown to Moscow on 9 July 1945. Wirths either flew out with Riehl or was later sent to join Riehl in Russia as a member of his group. Eventually, Riehl’s entire laboratory was dismantled and transported to the Soviet Union.
From 1945 to 1950, Riehl was in charge of uranium production at Plant No. 12 in Ehlektrostal' (Электросталь). German scientists, who were mostly atomic scientists, sent by the Soviets, at the close of World War II, to work in the Riehl group at Plant No. 12 included Alexander Catsch (Katsch), H. J. Born, Ortmann, Przybilla, Herbert Schmitz, Sommerfeldt, Herbert Thieme, Tobein, Günter Wirths, and Karl Günter Zimmer.
Three major technological upgrades were made at Plant No. 12 in the production metallic uranium, two of them involved Wirths as a principle driving force:
- Late in 1945, the United States released the book Atomic Energy for Military Purposes by Henry Smyth. The book was acquired by the Soviets, immediately translated, and distributed to the organizations involved in the Russian atomic bomb project. Riehl read it in one night. From statements in the book, Wirths and Herbert Thieme worked out the ether process, the wet-chemistry extraction process of uranium production, which replaced the low-throughput fractional crystallization method. The ceramic components were obtained from the Hermsdorf ceramic factory in Thuringia, Germany. A small industrial plant was in operation by February 1946. Its success resulted in a much larger plant being built in 1947, which had a much larger production capacity. It was in operation by the end of 1947.
- Riehl was approached by a scientist from the Nauchno-Issledovatel’skij Institut-9 (NII-9, Scientific Research Institute No. 9). Riehl refers to this man as the Platinum Colonel. The Platinum Colonel expressed the opinion that uranium tetrafluoride could be used in metallic uranium production instead of uranium oxide. Riehl believed this information was derived through Russian espionage, while others more recently credit it to the State Institute for Rare Metals (GIREDMET). In any event, Wirths and the chief engineer at Plant No. 12, Yuri N. Golovanov, worked out the technological applications of the uranium tetrafluoride process in the production of uranium, which was superior to the uranium oxide process. The first experiments with the tetrafluoride were conducted in 1946, and the technology was accepted for industrial application in 1947.
For their work at Plant No. 12, in contribution to the Soviet atomic bomb project, Wirths and Thieme were awarded a Stalin Prize, second class, and the Order of the Red Banner of Soviet Labor, also known and the Order of the Red Flag.
In preparation for release from the Soviet Union, it was standard practice to put personnel into quarantine for a few years if they worked on projects related to the Soviet atomic bomb project, as was the case for Wirths. Additionally, in 1954, the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR, German Democratic Republic) and the Soviet Union prepared a list of scientists they wished to keep in the DDR, due to their having worked on projects related to the Soviet atomic bomb project; this list was known as the “A-list”. On this A-list were the names of 18 scientists. Nine, possibly 10, of the names were associated with the Riehl group which worked at Plant No. 12 in Ehlektrostal'. Born, Catsch, Riehl, Wirths, and Zimmer were on the list.
Return to Germany
Wirths spoke English as was featured in the 1988 NOVA television program Nazis and the Russian Bomb. In the program, Manfred von Ardenne was also featured; he was a German physicist who directed Institute A, in Sinop, a suburb of Sukhumi. In the documentary, Wirths told a story about the purity of Plant No. 12’s production of uranium. Through espionage, the Soviets has procured a specimen of American uranium and compared it to that at Plant No. 12. The Soviet leaders praised the purity of Plant No. 12’s uranium production. Wirths, indicated that the Americans probably determined had optimized production output by allowing the purity to be less stringent, and said Plant No. 12 was probably “over doing it,” to which one of the Soviet leaders responded, “You damned Germans!”
- A. Böttcher, G. Wirths, and R. Schulten (Title translated from German) Fuel Elements for a High-temperature Reactor a publication of the Research Org Degussa, Frankfurt a.M.; Mannheim, Germany, 5 pages. US DoE OSTI ID: 4262639, Report Number(s) A/CONF.15/P/1005.
- G. Wirths and L. Ziehl (Title translated from German) Special Problems Arising in Connection with the Production of Uranium Metal and Uranium Compounds a publication of the Research Org Degussa Wolfgang near Hanau a.M., Germany, 14 pages. US DoE OSTI ID: 4261942, Report Number(s) A/CONF.15/P/1001.
- G. Wirths Problems of Chemists in the Production of Uranium and Thorium a publication of Research Org Deutsche Goldund Silber-Scheideanstalt, Wolfgang bei Hanau, 471-484. US DoE OSTI ID: 4298940, CODEN: APASA; 0001-6713.
- Hentschel, Klaus (editor) and Ann M. Hentschel (editorial assistant and translator) Physics and National Socialism: An Anthology of Primary Sources (Birkhäuser, 1996) ISBN 0-8176-5312-0
- Holloway, David Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy 1939–1956 (Yale, 1994) ISBN 0-300-06056-4
- Maddrell, Paul Spying on Science: Western Intelligence in Divided Germany 1945–1961 (Oxford, 2006) ISBN 0-19-926750-2
- Oleynikov, Pavel V. German Scientists in the Soviet Atomic Project, The Nonproliferation Review Volume 7, Number 2, 1 – 30 (2000). The author has been a group leader at the Institute of Technical Physics of the Russian Federal Nuclear Center in Snezhinsk (Chelyabinsk-70).
- Riehl, Nikolaus and Frederick Seitz Stalin’s Captive: Nikolaus Riehl and the Soviet Race for the Bomb (American Chemical Society and the Chemical Heritage Foundations, 1996) ISBN 0-8412-3310-1.
- Walker, Mark German National Socialism and the Quest for Nuclear Power 1939–1949 (Cambridge, 1993) ISBN 0-521-43804-7
- "Dr. Günter Wirths". ATW: Internationale Zeitschrift für Kernenergie (in German) (Düsseldorf: Handelsblatt) 50: 133. 2005. Retrieved 2013-07-12.
- Hentschel and Hentschel, 1996, Appendix F; see the entry for Riehl.
- Siegfried Flügge Kann der Energieinhalt der Atomkerne technisch nutzbar gemacht warden?, Die Naturwissenschaften Volume 27, 402 (1939).
- Also see the article by Siegfried Flügge Document 74. Siegfried Flügge: Exploiting Atomic Energy. From the Laboratory Experiment to the Uranium Machine – Research Results in Dahlem [August 15, 1939] reprinted in English in Hentschel and Hentschel, 1996, 197-206.
- Hentschel and Hentschel, 1996, 369, Appendix F (see the entry for Riehl), Appendix B (see the entry for Heereswaffenamt, and Appendix D (see the entry for Auergesellschaft).
- Riehl and Seitz, 1996, 8 and 13.
- Walker, 1993, 94-104.
- Riehl and Seitz, 1996, 71-72.
- Oleynikov, 2000, 7.
- Laboratory 2 was in Moscow. It was later known as LIPAN and then the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy. See Oleynikov, 2000, 4.
- Oleynikov, 2000, 3-5.
- Riehl and Seitz, 1996, 71-72 and 80.
- Hentschel and Hentschel, 1996, Appendix F, see the entry for Riehl.
- Walker, 1993, 183.
- ”Электросталь” is sometimes transliterated as “Elektrostal”. A one-to-one transliteration scheme transliterates the Cyrillic letter “Э” as “Eh”, which distinguishes it from that for the Cyrillic letter “Е” given as “E”. Transliterations often also drop the soft sign “ь”.
- Riehl and Seitz, 1996, 89-104.
- Riehl and Seitz, 1996, 2, 31, 71, 83, 121-128, and 202.
- Maddrell, 2006, 179-180, 186, 189, and 210-221.
- Smyth, Henry DeWolf Atomic Energy for Military Purposes: The Official Report of the Development of the Atomic Bomb Under the Auspices of the United States Government 1940–1945 (Stanford University Press, 1989, originally published in 1945 by the United States Government) ISBN 0-8047-1721-4.
- Riehl and Seitz, 1996, 94-95.
- Oleynikov, 2000, 15-16.
- Maddrell, 2006, 210-211.
- Today, NII-9 is the Bochvar All-Russian Scientific Research Institute of Inorganic Materials, Bochvar VNIINM. See Oleynikov, 2000, 4.
- Oleynikov believes the Platinum Colonel very likely was Ilja Chernjaev, who became famous for studies of platinum and its refinement. See Oleynikov, 2000, Reference #140 on p. 29.
- Riehl and Seitz, 1996, 100-101.
- Riehl and Seitz, 1996, 101.
- Oleynikov, 2000, 21-22.
- Riehl and Seitz, 1996, 103.
- Maddrell, 2006, 211.
- The A-list prepared by East Germany and the Soviet Union in 1954 had 18 names on it. These Germans were to be encouraged to stay in East Germany, as they had done work on the Soviet atomic bomb project. At least nine members worked in Riehl’s group at Ehlektrostal’:
- Hans-Joachim Born, Alexander Catsch, Werner Kirst, Przybilla, Nikolaus Riehl, Herbert Thieme, Tobein, Günter Wirths, and Karl Zimmer.
- Schmidt may be a tenth Riehl group member Herbert Schmitz, or the name may refer to Fritz Schmidt, another nuclear scientist who was returned to Germany.
- Heinz Barwich, Justus Mühlenpfordt, and Karl-Franz Zühlke, who all worked at Institute G headed by Gustav Hertz,
- Ingrid Schilling and Alfred Schimohr, who both worked at Institute A headed by Manfred von Ardenne,
- Willi Lange, Gerhard Siewert, and Ludwig Ziehl.
- Riehl and Seitz, 1996, 137-139.
- Maddrell, 2006, 179-180.
- Riehl and Seitz, 1996, 31.
- Oleynikov, 2000, 11-12.
- Naimark, 1995, 213.
- Riehl and Seitz, 1996, 2, 101, Reference #2 on p. 2, and Reference 9 on p. 101. NOVA Cites the program Nazis and the Russian Bomb being broadcast on 2 February 1993: NOVA.
- German Scientists in the Soviet Atomic Project by Pavel Olyenikov, in The Non Proliferation Review, Summer ed. 2000.