Argentina’s Completely Bogus Attempt At Nuclear Power

“Argentine technicians worked on the basis of thermonuclear reactions, which are identical with those whereby the sun releases atomic energy.” —Juan Peron, explaining the lofty goals of his nuclear program

In A Nutshell

Following World War II, prosperous Argentina wanted a top nuclear physics program that would rival the superpowers and provide cheap, unlimited energy for the nation. Having hired Dr. Ronald Richter (at left in the photo above), an unknown Austrian/German national and nuclear physicist, they instead achieved international embarrassment, mounting debt, and a military junta replacing Juan Peron, whom Richter (a total fraud) had misled. Only in recent decades has Argentina salvaged its reputation in nuclear physics.

The Whole Bushel

After World War II, the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union scooped up German scientists to work on industrial and scientific projects. The most noted scientist was Werner Von Braun, a principal contributor to the US rocket and space program. While these countries received the cream of the crop, Argentina, who officially remained neutral until declaring war against the Axis powers in March 1945, ended up getting a dud of a scientist.

While most people today don’t think of Argentina as a first-rate power, it was one of the wealthiest countries in the Americas in the first half of the 20th century, and some viewed it as a European country transplanted to the southwestern hemisphere. Juan Peron, recently elected as president, thus wanted to show significant technological advancement so that his country would rival the emerging global superpowers. Under his comprehensive “New Argentina” program, he set out to have a similarly excellent nuclear physics program.

It just happened that scientists in Argentina had encouraged Dr. Ronald W. Richter to immigrate to Argentina after the U.S. had declined to recruit him due to his past as a Nazi party member. An obscure man from either Austria or Germany, Richter claimed he had previously been involved in nuclear research. Peron was delighted that he now had his own German scientist to pursue atomic research. Peron claimed that he didn’t want an atomic program for military purposes but that he desired to pursue the potentiality of unlimited energy.

In late 1949, Peron chose Huemul Island as the ideal location for Richter’s research program. Both Peron and Richter were so confident in what they would later refer to as the Huemul Project that they decided to bypass nuclear fission and declared that they would go straight for nuclear fusion. However, they kept many details of the project secret from the international physics community. Peron even kept Argentinean astrophysicist Ramon Enrique Gaviola away from Project Huemul, likely due to the skepticism that many domestic and international scientists were beginning to have about Richter.

It was less than a year later, in March 1951, that Peron stated that Argentina now harnessed the power of the stars, as he announced that Richter’s fusion experiment was successful. Even Time ran an article on the discovery claim. Most of the scientific community was not buying it. When a reporter interviewed Richter and asked what kind of explosion he had achieved, Richter said that he controlled the explosion, that he could make it increase or decrease at his desire. He even admitted that the so-called explosion hadn’t been heard 10 kilometers (6.5 mi) away.

Eventually, the international physics community began investigating Richter’s claim. C.J. Bakker, a Dutch physicist, traveled to Argentina, but Argentinean researchers gave him no scientific proof that they had attained fission, let alone fusion. Furthermore, Werner Heisenberg and Otto Hahn, who were Nazi Germany’s top atomic scientists, claimed they hadn’t even heard of Ronald Richter, didn’t believe that any top German physicists immigrated to Argentina, and thus doubted that Argentina had progressed beyond the early stages of nuclear research.

The investigation and results from an Argentinean scientific board set up by Peron confirmed their doubts. It was obvious that Richter hadn’t obtained fission; during his experiments, he hadn’t even reached a high enough temperature to set off a chain reaction.

The military was furious that Richter had bamboozled them, and Peron was embarrassed internationally. The project had cost Argentina an estimated 300 million dollars in today’s currency values. The military arrested Richter, who disappeared into obscurity until an obituary listed his death in 1991. Due to the fiasco of Project Huemul, among other complaints about his leadership, a military junta removed Peron from power a few years later, and he went into exile for nearly 20 years.

What happened to Huemul Island? In the ’70s, the military used it for target practice and as a bombing range. In the ’90s, there were proposals to turn it into a tourist attraction. It is still in ruins. Fortunately, for Argentina’s reputation, the country has improved its nuclear physics program in recent decades, making it the chief exporter of atomic technology from the southern hemisphere.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image photo credit: Mario Bancora
Wired: Nuclear island: The secret post-WWII mega lab investigated
Nazi International, by Joseph P. Farrell
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Nov 1970
NY Times: Sequel to an Old Fraud: Argentina’s Powerful Nuclear Program