Vemork is the name of a hydroelectric power plant outside Rjukan in Tinn, Norway. The plant was built by Norsk Hydro and opened in 1911, its main purpose being to fix nitrogen for the production of fertilizer. Vemork was later the site of the first plant in the world to mass-produce heavy water developing from the hydrogen production then used for the Haber process. During World War II, Vemork was the target of Norwegian heavy water sabotage operations. The heavy water plant was closed in 1971, and in 1988 the power station became the Norwegian Industrial Workers Museum.
In 1906, Norsk Hydro started construction of what was to be the world's largest hydroelectric power plant. The 60-MW Vemork power station at the Rjukan waterfall was the world’s largest power plant when it opened in 1911, after six years of construction. The project was so expensive that the works had to be financed by overseas sources. The plant became the corporate precursor to Norsk Hydro. Ten 6-MW T/G sets were supplied by Voith and AEG (units 1-5) and Escher Wyss and Oerlikon (units 6-10).
In 1911, construction was complete. The plant, itself, was built to power a factory producing artificial fertilizer by a new method invented by Kristian Birkeland. Later, Norsk Hydro developed and realized another project—the production of heavy water (deuterium) by means of electrolysis. The company built a unit for producing high concentrations of heavy water at the Vemork plant at Rjukan, although for what purpose was not stated. Production started in December 1934.
Heavy water sabotage
In 1940, the French Government purchased the entire stock, then available, of heavy water from Norway. The Germans had also offered to purchase it, but the Norwegian Government was told of its possible military use and gave it to a French agent, who smuggled it to France via England. That supply eventually went back to England. (see Tube Alloys#The Paris Group)
During the German occupation of Norway in World War II, the heavy-water production plant was sabotaged by the SOE in order to prevent the Germans from making an atomic bomb. However, it was later discovered that the Germans were not as close to making an atomic bomb as had been initially feared.
The production of heavy water was judged to be a serious enough threat that at least five separate attacks were launched during World War II.
- On 18 October 1942, four Norwegian SOE (Special Operations Executive) agents were parachuted in on a reconnaissance operation code-named 'Grouse'.
- In November 1942, Operation Freshman was conducted by the British as a Combined Operation involving the RAF and the Army, using two Halifax bombers, each towing a glider. Three of these aircraft crashed, and the survivors were captured and executed by the Germans.
- In February 1943, SOE's Operation 'Gunnerside' parachuted another six Norwegian agents into the area, to join forces with the four from 'Grouse'. They successfully attacked the Rjukan electrolysis plant on 28 February 1943, with the loss of 500kg of heavy water and destruction of the heavy-water section of the plant.
- On 16 November 1943, an American air raid took place, but there was minimal damage to the electrolysis building.
- On 20 February 1944, a successful attack by Norwegian resistance sank the ferry D/F"HYDRO" that was taking a shipment of heavy water to Germany.
Today, the original power plant is an industrial museum. Its exhibitions cover both the heavy-water sabotage operations and the early Norwegian labor movement.
A Norwegian movie about the sabotage operation against the heavy water power plant was made in 1948, starring several of the original saboteurs, and titled "Kampen om tungtvannet" (Norway), "La Bataille de l'eau lourde" (France) og "Operation Swallow: The Battle for Heavy Water" (USA). Later, in 1965, director Anthony Mann made a rather less accurate Hollywood film version of the story entitled The Heroes of Telemark, starring Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris.
In 2003, British survival expert Ray Mears made a BBC documentary series and book called "The Real Heroes of Telemark," giving a more realistic view of the difficulties encountered in the mission to sabotage the heavy-water power plant.
In 1975, a non-fiction book, authored by Thomas Gallagher and published by Bantam, called "Assault in Norway" was produced. The book's cover states that the book is "the true story of the secret mission that blasted Hitler's dream of an atomic bomb."