Norway: A key player in the Atomic Age

Photo: Skotten / Wikimedia Commons The Vemork power plant as it looks today.

Photo: Skotten / Wikimedia Commons
The Vemork power plant as it looks today.

Finn Roed
West Bloomfield, Mich.

Who knew? Norway is more than sardines, lutefisk, goat cheese, and bunads. Norway is a technologically advanced country and has been for years.

Remember the American film Heroes of Telemark with Kirk Douglas? The film tackled the the destruction of Vemork, a heavy water plant in Rjukan, Telemark. The film also dealt with the sabotage of a ship, carrying heavy water, on Lake Mjøsa.

The Germans were producing heavy water for their atomic research program there. If the heavy water had reached Germany, Hitler undoubtedly would have produced an atomic bomb.

The leader of the saboteurs, Joachim Rønneberg, was only 22 years old. His group had no specific information as to how to accomplish their tasks; they had to solve the problems as they presented themselves. They succeeded magnificently in halting German research progress.

What was Vemork? It was a power station in Vestforddalen, west of Rjukan, established in 1922.

Rjukan was a modern industrial city, one of the most advanced technical cities in the world, operated by Norsk Hydro Rjukan from 1911 to 1991. The waterfall had been put in pipes, and the power generated was used by the chemical industry. The workers lived in nice houses. A library, a church, a spa, and municipal buildings were built. Even a cable car line carried workers up to the sun at the top of the mountain in the winter months when the sun couldn’t reach down into the valley.

There, chemicals were manufactured related to the production of fertilizer, such as ammonia, potassium, nitrate, nitrogen, and heavy water. Fertilizer was apparently an important Norwegian invention.

Norsk Hydro built the first commercial heavy water plant. For the production of hydrogen and oxygen, a plant was built next to Vemork. The plant required “direct current,” which is why it was located next to a power plant. Discovery was made that the plant also produced five liters of heavy water as a by-product each year. There was a market for this among scientists.

Heavy water is deuterium oxide, an aspect of water that contains a larger amount of the hydrogen isotope deuterium. Also called D20, it’s water in which deuterium replaces both hydrogen atoms.

This heavy water is essential to one type of reactor, in which plutonium can be produced from natural uranium.

As soon as World War II was over, a number of countries used Norwegian heavy water to make atomic weapons. Norwegian equipment and knowledge were at the core of many atomic programs.

Norway was an atomic power in the 1950s and 60s; Norway was the first, outside the Big Powers, to build an atomic reactor. “Jeep 1,” outside Lillestrøm at Kjeller, was dedicated in 1951. In the six years since WWII, only four other countries had managed to build reactors.

Even while Norway sought to restrict atomic development, it was also the source or main supplier of equipment to countries working on atomic weapons.

Such was Norwegian politics at the time.

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 28, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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