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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Japan’s WWII Atomic Weapons Program

There’s a TV program on now about a “What if?” scenario where, what if Germany and Japan had defeated the Allies in WWII—a show called The Man In The High Castle. (Image above is of the Allied atomic bomb blast on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.)

In the comic books, DC owns the rights to The Freedom Fighters, a bunch of individual characters previous owned by Quality Comics, that DC put together back in 1973, where this Earth-X superhero team lived and fought in a world where Nazi Germany won a very long WWII due to a Japanese invasion of California and the Nazi-development of nuclear weapons.

Anyhow… no one seems to have ever come up with a concept where what would have happened if Japan had an atomic bomb...

Did you know that the Japanese actually had an atomic weapons program during WWII?

Yes. They did.

Did the Japanese have a working atomic bomb? No.

They needed more time… time they no longer had after Germany’s defeat at the hands of the Allies in May 8, 1945, that then allowed the Allies to squarely concentrate their efforts on taking down Japan.

Come along Sherman, step into Mr. Peabrain’s Wayback (WAYBAC - aka Wavelength Acceleration Bidirectional Asynchronous Controller) machine and let’s try not to step on any butterflies back in 1934… because butterflies are nice…. even Japanese butterflies of Imperial Japan.

Tadayoshi Hikosaka (surname first) was a professor at Tohoku University, who in 1934 released his ‘atomic physics theory, whereby he describes the:
  1. large amounts of energy contained by nuclei and;
  2. the possibility that both nuclear power generation and weapons could be created.
To be clear, I can't find any information at all on Tadayoshi, which is weird if he's supposed to be someone who was a big deal in Japan thinking it could create nuclear weapons...    
Four years later, German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann reported that they had been able to detect barium after bombarding uranium with neutrons.

This information made its way to Lise Meitner and her nephew Robert Frisch who said this was nuclear fission, with Frisch confirming the results on January 13, 1939 with his own experiment.

With this, scientists proved that nuclear chain reactions could be produced artificially, and soon enough governments everywhere learned that it was now truly possible to develop nuclear weapons.

(Make no mistake… atomic weapons are nuclear weapons - it’s just nomenclature.)

In Japan, leading physicist Nishina Yoshio (surname first) was keen on utilizing nuclear fission as a military weapon, but was also justifiably concerned that other countries like the U.S., were also trying to create a nuclear weapon.
Does anyone else think Nishina Yoshio should have someone look at that mole under his eye?
Nishina had previously co-authored the Klein-Nishina formula which I’m not enough of an egghead to properly get (it gives the differential cross section of photons scattered from a single free electron in lowest order of quantum electrodynamics, according to Wikipedia) - see?

He was friendly with Einstein and Neils Bohr, the great Dane physicist, a guy every fan of the show The Big Bang Theory should be pontificating to because of his huge contributions to the understanding of atomic structure and quantum theory.

Nishina had previously established his own Nuclear Research Laboratory to study high-energy physics in 1931 at RIKEN Institute (the Institute for Physical and Chemical Research), which had been established in 1917 in Tokyo to promote basic research.

In 1936 Nishina constructed a 26-inch (660 mm) cyclotron, and a 60-inch (1,500 mm), 220-ton cyclotron in 1937.

In 1938 Japan also purchased a cyclotron from the University of California, Berkeley.

Really, U of C Berkley? You didn’t see Japan as being dicks to the rest of Asia before that? You just wanted the money, right? Or was it just the false belief that there was no way a government would ever try and pervert science for their own use? (Melancholy sigh)

Nishina (right) at work at teh RIKEN Institute trying to make his cyclotron separate atoms... any atom...

It was in 1939 that Nishina worried that the U.S. might be trying to create a nuclear weapon, and depending on when in 1939, he was either paranoid or correct, as U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt wondered behind closed doors if the U.S. could or should develop its own nuclear weaponry.

Becoming the well-known (now) Manhattan Project, the University of California, Berkley lab that sold Japan a cyclotron became the place to be if you were involved in U.S. nuclear weapons research.

After meeting Japanese director of Japan’s Army Aeronautical Department's Technical Research Institute, lieutenant-general Yasuda Takeo (surname first), Nishina told him about the possibility of Japan building its own nuclear weapon’s arsenal.

That meeting was not coincidental. Have you ever met a General on train? Would you ever be discussing state secrets and military strategy on such a vehicle?

It is important to note, that this was an Army plan.

In April of 1941, Army Minister Tojo Hideki (yeah, that Tojo - surname first) ordered Yasuda to look further into the possibility of Japan being able to create nuclear weapons. Yasuda then passed the order down to viscount Ōkōchi Masatoshi director of the RIKEN Institute, who then passed the order down to Nishina.

By this time, Nishina had over 100 nuclear researchers.

Navy Time Japan’s Army and Navy were always in competition with one another, so perhaps it would come as no surprise that the Imperial Japanese Navy's Technology Research Institute had been looking in to the possibility of creating nuclear weapons, too.

They had been in talks with scientists from the Imperial University in Tokyo, for advice on constructing and possible use of nuclear weapons. This resulted in the formation of the Committee on Research in the Application of Nuclear Physics, chaired by Nishina, that met 10 times between July 1942 and March 1943.

It concluded in a report that while an atomic bomb was, in principle, feasible, "it would probably be difficult even for the United States to realize the application of atomic power during the war.”

Well… if the U.S. couldn’t do it, why should the Japanese Navy bother?

Rather than worry about nuclear weapons, the Navy focused its attention on radar.

Ni-Go Project But the Army still thought the awesome might of a split atom would be just dandy to use, that same Committee on Research in the Application of Nuclear Physics worked with the Army and set up the Ni-Go Project at the RIKEN complex.

1929, RIKEN welcomed Dr. W. Heisenberg (fourth left) and Dr. P.A.M. Dirac (sixth from left). Japanese Scientists: From left to right - Dr. Y. Nishina, Dr. M. Katsuyama, Dr. M. Okouchi, Dr. N. Nagaoka, Dr. K. Honda, and Dr. Y, Sugiura. Image from

If you glance at the photo immediately above, you Breaking Bad fans will see the original Heisenberg.

Via the Ni-Go Project, scientists were TRYING to separate uranium-235 by thermal diffusion. The other methods to do so include: electromagnetic separation, gaseous diffusion, and centrifugal separation.

It took until February 1945, but at the RIKEN complex, scientists separated a small amount of some radioactive material… but it was not uranium-235.

The attempt to separate the U-235 ended two months later after U.S. bombing fire-damaged the facility.

Japan’s biggest problem in attempting to create nuclear fission was its inability to procure enough uranium for experiments. The Japanese Navy and Army did conduct searches for uranium ore, looking in Fukushima-ken, of all places, as well as in conquered territories in Burma, Korea and China.

The Japanese did try and get some from Axis ally Germany, with some 1,230 pounds (560 kilograms) of unprocessed uranium oxide sent via German submarine U-234 (interesting name).

It was the U-234’s first and only mission into enemy territory, but on May 14, 1945 it was told to surface and surrender by German Admiral Admiral Dönitz, as Germany was offering its unconditional surrender.

F-Go Project
But, there was another Japanese plan for nuclear weapons going on at the same time as Ni-Go Project… this one called F-Go Project… though I assume there was a real Japanese translation.

F-Go was a Navy program - another one, taking place at Kyoto’s Imperial University under the auspices of Arakatsu Bunsaku (surname first), who as the then-current No. 1 Japanese physicist had studied at Cambridge under Ernest Rutherford and at the Berlin University under Albert Einstein.

Arakatsu Bunsaku looking all aglow with his nice suit and hot haircut and mustache.
Rutherford, in case you are wondering, was the guy who gave us the model of what an atom looks like inside and out… you know, electrons, protons, neutrons. A New Zealander, he did a lot of his work at Canada’s McGill University in Montreal, where he was the one who figured out radioactive half-life, proved that radioactivity involved the nuclear transmutation of one chemical element to another, and also differentiated and named alpha and beta radiation. Einstein… I believe he was a very smart alien from outer space.

Anyhow, a commander Kitagawa who was the head of the Japanese Navy’s Research Institute chemical department wanted Arakatsu to continue with trying to separate uranium-235.

By the time WWII concluded for Japan, he had designed and was constructing an ultracentrifuge that could spin at 60,000 rpm (rotations per minute) - current ultracentrifuge’s can spin at a speed of 1,000,000 g’s, which is approximately 9,800 kilometers per second squared, which is effing fast.

We spin stuff in a centrifuge to try and cause the atoms to separate into smaller and smaller and smaller components. The trick to achieve even greater speeds is to continue to lightweight the rotor… and hopefully avoid a fire caused by friction.

Anyhow… no uranium-235 separated by the ultracentrifuge for Japan at that time.

After the U.S. used two of its three available atomic bombs (see HERE for more about the 3rd Atomic Bomb and its possible targets), the Atomic Bomb Mission of the Manhattan Project was sent to Japan to see what it had wrought, and discovered that Japan’s F-Go Project had received some 20 grams a month of heavy water from electrolytic ammonia plants in Korea and Kyushu.

Japanese industrialist Noguchi Jun had created a heavy water program back in 1926 via his Korean Hydro Electric Company in what is now Hungnam, Korea.

However, despite the availability of heavy water for nuclear research, the Japanese had not realized—and did not proceed—with using heavy water to help control nuclear fission.

So… despite some stories on the Internet claiming Japan having nuclear weapons capabilities, or having actually tested an ‘atomic’ bomb in Korea towards the end of WWII, there is no actual proof that the Japanese nuclear weapons program had proceeded far enough at the time of its surrender.

Even if Germany had held out longer on its surrender, Japan’s nuclear weapons studies seem to prove that its processes were not what we today would call the best processes for the end result.

Andrew "I think I just accidentally stepped on myself" Joseph

1 comment:

  1. I just had a flashback (not a good one either) to my freshman Chemistry class where my professor was a nuclear physicist (this guy - - tough class, dropped it once and passed 2nd time round ... barely. That was the end of my attempt at majoring in anything in the Sciences.) Found this interesting bit on Tadayoshi Hikosaka Hope you've brushed up on your German... ;-)