Peaceful Nuclear Innovation in the Andes

Chris Dunlap

Thanks to support from the SSD Summer Research Grant, I was able to conduct historical research for my dissertation at the somewhat unusual site where Argentina’s nuclear energy program began. Bariloche is perhaps better known as a ski resort town with postcard views of a massive alpine lake than as a center of scientific innovation. Yet that lake – specifically one island within it – is the key to Bariloche’s outsized historical role in science and technology, despite nearly 1,000 miles of distance from Buenos Aires. Argentina is a highly centralized country where physical separation from the capital often dooms a place to irrelevance, but when secrecy is the goal, as it was for two important events nearly 30 years apart in the country’s nuclear history, the rapid collection of knowledge and skilled personnel in such a town begins to make more sense.

Argentina’s successful peaceful nuclear energy program had strange beginnings, to say the least. In the early 1950s, President Juan Domingo Perón founded the national nuclear energy commission, CNEA, and invited an Austrian scientist, Ronald Richter, to build a device that Richter claimed would provide unlimited power from nuclear fusion. That island in the lake, Isla Huemul, was the site of extensive installations of high technology and heavy equipment to facilitate construction and work on this device. Richter’s project was a fraud, however – and a huge embarrassment for Perón’s administration – quickly unmasked by a team of Argentine physicists including José Antonio Balseiro. Only three years later, Balseiro would see the fruits of his heroic labors in bringing post-secondary physics education to Argentina for the first time when the Institute of Physics opened with financial support from CNEA. The nation’s short history with nuclear energy obviously suffered from dependence on foreigners like Richter. Balseiro’s institute, which bears his name to this day, was a concrete symbol of faith in a new and talented generation of Argentine-born and domestically trained specialists in the physical sciences.

The Instituto Balseiro was the first of three institutions where I researched in Bariloche, and my goal in visiting it was to see if its presence might help explain some of the differences between Argentina’s and Brazil’s nuclear energy policies and infrastructure. While I did not find the kind of historical documentation I sought about the life and alumni of the Institute, I was able to interview Norma Badino, one of the authors of a book published this year on Balseiro’s life and pioneering role in Argentine physics education. She was invaluable in answering some of the questions I had after reading the book and in pointing me toward another potential source of information on the mid-1970s founding of the second organization of interest to me, INVAP, an aerospace/chemical/nuclear/engineering company with an international reputation and presence.

At INVAP, I enjoyed a personal tour given by an ex-president of CNEA, Eduardo Santos. Mr. Santos spoke to me for almost two hours about the history of INVAP and its current projects. I saw mock-ups of satellites being constructed in cavernous spaces behind spotless windows (all bearing a “no photography” sign in their corners) and was astounded by the complexity and size of the facilities that 1,500 full-time workers call home. Mr. Santos invited me to an interview specifically on nuclear matters the following week at the CNEA headquarters, the third institution of interest to me on this trip, and the one at which I spent the most time.

The library at CNEA, a sparkling building still bearing its shiny 2013 founding plaque and a brisk one-mile walk along the lake from the small cabin in which I stayed, holds a wealth of technical information on Argentina’s nuclear development, as well as the Master of Science theses of graduates of the Instituto Balseiro. I spent days photographing various planning documents, books unavailable outside the highly specialized context of that library (and certainly outside Argentina), and any evidence of Brazilian or Argentine scientists working to enrich the body of nuclear knowledge either in South America or at international organizations like the IAEA. “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is an especially true maxim in Latin America, and I am grateful beyond measure for the people in Bariloche who helped me to have so much more documentation and information for my dissertation (i.e. “what I know”) than I did just one month ago: my primary academic “host,” Raúl Barrachina; the librarian at the Biblioteca Leo Falicov, Christina Martínez; Eduardo Santos, who granted me two long interviews and shared parts of his personal archive with me, and interviewees Norma Badino in Bariloche and Diego Hurtado in Buenos Aires.

In short, my month in Bariloche was absolutely fundamental to understanding key parts of Argentina’s nuclear history, and I am grateful to the Social Sciences Division for its support of my research.

Chris Dunlap is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History.