How A Small Norwegian Team Helped Defuse Hitler's Nuclear Aspirations

Dec 23, 2017

This story originally aired on April 30, 2016.

During World War II, in a frozen wilderness in southern Norway, on the edge of an icy cliff sat a hydroelectric plant called Vemork. This winter fortress was the center of some of the most important sabotage efforts of the war.

That’s because besides electricity, the plant manufactured a rare substance Hitler needed for an atomic bomb: heavy water. The allies thought that if Hitler got his hands on this stuff, the Germans could win the war. So they wanted to destroy the plant. And their first plan was an outright air attack.

But a Norwegian named Leif Tronstad knew better. He was a chemist and a professor who designed the plant. He knew it would be very difficult to stage a successful air attack, for many reasons. First, it was in a very deep valley that the sun rarely shined upon. And second, the fortress was comprised of tens of thousands of pounds of steel and stone, and the heavy water plant was in the basement. 

Seattle author Neal Bascomb wrote about the history of Vermok in his new book “The Winter Fortress.” Bascomb told Gabriel Spitzer about Leif Tronstad -  a scientist, not a military man - who would spearhead a new sabotage plan against the facility.