Weird Wednesdays: Britain’s chicken-heated nuclear detonator

 Chickens have a variety of uses, but one of its more unknown uses is heating nuclear bombs. (Creative Commons)

Chickens have a variety of uses, but one of its more unknown uses is heating nuclear bombs. (Creative Commons)

The chicken is a versatile animal. It can be used for egg and fertilizer production, or as alarm clocks. Their feathers are used in pillows, their meat can be used in anything from chicken nuggets to soup and, it turns out, they can be used to heat nuclear bombs.

Picture this: it’s 1954. The Cold War is brewing. Germany is carved up like a Christmas turkey. Both the U.K. and the U.S. are doing their best to keep the Red Tide of Communism from sweeping across Europe, as the Soviets had just formed the Warsaw Pact.

(The Warsaw Pact, if you’re wondering, was kind of an anti-NATO. While the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was formed to keep communism from spreading to the west, the Pact was formed, subsequently, to spread socialism.)

To keep the Commies out, the British had to formulate a way to prevent a possible invading force from coming through the forested area of northern Germany, which was vulnerable territory. Plans were made for a nuclear landmine that could be activated remotely, or by timer.

Land mines are tricky things. They have to be large enough to make an impact from below, throw several-ton tanks in the air like popcorn and more or less make mayhem for people who aren’t you. Nuclear power is even trickier, since it leaves the area of impact near-untraversable due to the radiation.

The Brits needed a bomb, and a big one at that. Project Blue Peacock was launched to accomplish that, and it delivered. In 1955, the labs had created a 16,000-pound plutonium monstrosity that had to be buried in a gravel pit 35-feet deep just to test the detonation mechanism. If triggered, the bomb would create a hole 375-feet wide (which is greater than the length of a football field). 

The bomb was also waterproof, airtight and highly radioactive. It could detonate on a timer, a remote command or if the bomb was tampered with in any way. The detonator, however, was where the rub lay.

Detonators are tricky things, and nuclear bomb detonators are even moreso. The basic mechanism of a nuclear bomb is that a nucleus, the core of an atom, is knocked into the nucleus of another atom, which sheds more nucleus, which knock into other atoms, and so on. With each nucleus release, energy is released. When you have a ton of atoms in one space, it’s a lot of energy – an explosion, in fact. This is known as nuclear fission.

Plutonium, which is what the Blue Peacock bomb was made of, has very unstable nuclei. They go flying all over the place like crazy bats, which makes the highly radioactive element ideal for nuclear fission. While plutonium in its natural state has atoms that are far too spaced out to collide with each other, when you compress it, the chain reaction can start. This is how the bomb detonates – by using a small compressor to make the plutonium atoms smash into each other.

Back to Blue Peacock. The detonation device needed to operate at a specific temperature in order to actually work – and northern Germany’s soil was too cold during the winter. The solution?

Add chickens. Poultry have a naturally high body temperature and are easy to obtain. The plans outlined placing the chickens in the lining of the bomb, with enough food for them to last a few days until the bomb was detonated, or they expired naturally (a soldier would replace them as needed). Either outcomes resulted in the death of the birds – animal rights groups weren’t really a thing back then.

The chicken idea, while discussed, was scrapped and replaced by fiberglass insulation and internal heating. Eventually the project itself was scrapped in 1958, after Germany became allied territory – covering your friend’s land in deadly radiation and football field-long craters isn’t very tactically advisable.

The bombshell, emptied of plutonium (and poultry) was put into a historic collection, and the rest of the component was dismantled, disposed of or reused.

The story lives on. The official project details were declassified in 2004, on, of all days, April 1. Though many thought it was a prank, in a classically British stoic way, officials reassured the public that it was real.

“The Civil Service,” they said, “does not make jokes.”

So, next time your roommate makes fun of you for your hare-brained scheme to use a hairdryer to mess with the thermostat, tell them that there are far, far stranger ways to reach optimal temperature. Until next week, folks – stay weird.


Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.