Nuclear Politics in Cold War Argentina

By Sheinin, David; Figallo, Beatriz | MACLAS Latin American Essays, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Nuclear Politics in Cold War Argentina


Sheinin, David, Figallo, Beatriz, MACLAS Latin American Essays


The history of the Argentine nuclear sector is wonderfully contradictory--"wonderfully" because despite its problems and failures, it emerged as Argentina's most important area of technological advancement in the Cold War period. Led through much of its history by senior admiralty officers, the Argentine National Energy Commission--the Comision Nacional de Energia Atomica or CNEA--was never a military bureaucracy. Often the focus of the military's ambitions for industrial, scientific, and strategic development during the periods of military rule between 1966 and 1983, the nuclear sector remained remarkably free of military influence or intervention. Despite that several CNEA employees were the victims of military violence during the last dictatorship, Commission leadership refused to sack scientists for their political views and protected a number of their investigators from Dirty War violence. An important Argentine bureaucracy, the CNEA was unlike any other such structure in the professional longevity of its administrators, scientists, and technologists. Hundreds of CNEA members stayed in their positions and advanced through the ranks in spite of the jarring political changes that shook Argentina between 1960 and 1990.

The nuclear sector never realized its most important promise, to spearhead industrial prosperity, to provide Argentina's energy needs inexpensively, and to become profitable. Even so, Argentina emerged after 1960 as a major center for nuclear research and a multi-billion dollar exporter of everything from cancer treatment machinery to experimental reactors, the most recent of which was sold to Australia in 2000. In addition, nuclear power became an important area of Argentine domestic and foreign policy concern. As such, it came to represent the country's Cold War politics in a variety of ways. The Second World War and early Cold War tensions were the backdrop for Argentina's first foray into nuclear power. An Argentine War Ministry decree (No. 22855-45) in 1945 blocked the export of uranium, signaling an early awareness of the strategic importance of nuclear power. A year later, Congress debated the nationalization of uranium mines. The president of the Asociacion Fisica Argentina, Enrique Gaviola, proposed the establishment of a government-funded institute to spearhead nuclear research, outside the reach of the military. At the same time, General Manuel Savio, founder of Fabricaciones Militares, backed a military-controlled nuclear research program under the direction of the Ministerio de Guerra. These and other projects came to nought with the arrival of the Austrian physicist, Ronald Richter, in 1948. (1)

Richter came to Argentina with the German engineer Kurt Tank, contracted at the end of the war by the Instituto Aeronautico de Cordoba to build an Argentine airplane. Within a week Richter had met with President Juan Peron and convinced the general to place the national nuclear program in his, Richter's hands. Richter promised Peron controlled thermonuclear reactions through nuclear fusion. Until then, the only reactions achieved had been by nuclear fission. Peron gave Richter free reign and millions of dollars. The physicist installed himself and a small team of technicians on the isolated Isla Huemul in southern Argentina. He personally supervised all aspects of his program to build a nuclear reactor including the purchase of virtually every piece of equipment transported onto the island. While Peron may well have been interested in the possibility of building a nuclear weapon, he and subsequent Argentine leaders were always aware of the logistical, political, and strategic pitfalls nuclear weapons might bring. Despite that there was no evidence that Argentina's nuclear program had a military component, the US government became suspicious of Argentine intentions and remained so for much of the Cold War. The suspicion came, in part, from Richter's dramatic announcement in 1951 that he had succeeded in producing the reaction he promised.

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