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Juan Perón's Thermonuclear Power Fiasco

During the late 1940's the big push in the nuclear field was for the development of what was then called the Hydrogen Bomb and is now called just nuclear weapons. There was publicity in the media about a super bomb with a destructive power hundreds of times greater than the atomic weapons that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There was also public concern in the United States about the Soviet effort to also build such super bombs.


Juan Perón

Amidst this talk about super destructive bombs there came a completely unexpected announcement from Argentina. On March 25th, 1951 President Juan Perón announced that Argentina had developed fusion power which, in contrast to the American and Soviet programs, could be used for peaceful purposes. It was fusion power, the same source as that of the Sun's energy.

The research program was located on the island of Huemul in a large lake on the border between Argentina and Chile. The discoverer of this marvelous find was an Austrian/German physicist named Ronald Richter. After Perón made his announcement Richter spoke to the assembled journalists


Ronald Richter
What the American get when they explode a Hydrogen bomb, we in Argentina achieve in the laboratory and under control. As of today, we know of a totally new way of obtaining atomic energy which does not use materials hitherto thought indispensable.

Richter was not a scientist of repute. He had never published an article in physics and his academic career lacked any luster. Given Richter's lack of credibility and the implausibility of the claims prominent scientists scoffed at Peron's announcement. David Lilienthal was asked by a reporter if there was the slightest chance that Argentinian scientists had achieved nuclear fusion. He replied wittily, "Less than that."

David Lapp, a physicist who had worked on the Manhattan Project which developed the atomic bomb, said

I know what that other material is that the Argentines are using. It's baloney.

Edward Teller said of Richter's description of his project

Reading one line one has to think he's a genius. Reading the next line, one realizes he's crazy.

Juan Perón replied to the ridicule being heaped upon his claim with

I am not interested in what the United States or any other country in the world thinks […] They have not yet told the first truth and I have not yet told the first lie.

Not everyone scoffed at the Argentine claim. One French physicist supported the description of the process which had been given by Richter. Others said that the glory of the discovery was not Richter's alone. The government of the Netherlands initiated negotiations with Argentina about sharing nuclear research.

Perón awarded Richter a medal for his outstanding accomplishment. In October of 1951 Richter announced that a large scale experiment had been a success and in December he promised that in a few months he would he would make demonstrations that would make the skeptics eat their words.

Some in Argentina were beginning to have their doubts. An Argentine navy pilot visited the program facilities on Huemul Island. He witnessed some bizarre behavior by Richter, such as deliberately exploding a tank of nitrogen and hydrogen. The pilot, believing that Richter was insane, convinced Perón to have a delegation of scientists and government officials visit Huemul Island.

The delegation visited Huemul Island in September of 1952 and found fraudulent demonstrations displayed for them, such as Geiger counters which were reporting radiation that the delegation's own Geiger counters were not detecting.

The delegation's report convinced Perón that Richter was a fraud. Perón then had the problem of explaining why he had poured millions of dollars of public funds into the project. Two years later Richter was arrested and incarcerated. It is not certain how long he was imprisoned but he was freed at some point and lived to a ripe old age of 81, dying in Buenos Aires in 1991.


Sources:

Charles Seife, Sun in a Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking, Penguin Group, New York, 2008.

Mario Mariscotti, Secreto Atomico de Huemul, Sudamericana, Buenos Aires, 1985.


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