Under the Southern Cross

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In cold winter, an IYNC delegation took a trip to the warm south to view first hand the cradle of South American nuclear power industry.

During a short flight from Buenos Aires to Bariloche, there was only one thought I was turning over in my mind – why do my neighbors have warm jackets carefully folded on their lap? Buenos Aires had been melting with heat, with night temperature hardly falling below +32. Nathan Paterson, the fair-skinned delegate from Scotland, sat with his nose peeling and neck crimson with sunburn. All this just did not hang together.


In the baggage claim area, it grew evident to me that there was something we had not been warned of. Everyone was wearing down jackets and caps. For once, I was happy to have been carrying my winter clothes from Moscow in a big heavy suitcase for the whole week. “By the way,” said Cristian, a tall and robust redhead Argentinian, in a nonchalant tone. “It is a bit cold here.” Cristian Vega was coming from a small city of Mar del Plata located 400 kilometers away from Argentina’s capital. He had spent four years in Bariloche studying at the Balseiro Institute, and returned from Paris a couple of months before, where he got an MSc in Nuclear Engineering. He helped to bring together young nuclear engineers from across the globe for a trip to Latin America.

Shivering like leaves in our shorts and slides, we ran up to the nearest taxi. Having made ourselves comfortable on the backseats, we leaned back and were instantly struck dumb. Through the window, we could see the space: the Milky Way, breathtakingly beautiful and clear like a Hubble picture, the Magellanic Clouds, the Southern Cross, or Melipal, as the Mapuche people in Patagonia call it. The Coalsack Dark Nebula was also easy to discern. Cristian told about the tradition of local students to climb Mount Cerro Catedral, whose pointed tips resemble those of a Gothic cathedral. On the very top of it, they put up tents and spend the whole night contemplating the starry sky, imagining they are members of an expedition searching for Captain Grant in the Andes.

From the porch of the bungalow we stayed in, there was a magnificent view of Lake Nahuel Huapi, which stands for “Jaguar Island” in the Mapuche language. There is a legend telling about the spirit of the lake, a mysterious creature living on its very bottom (someone even claims to have seen it). However, the most incredible story related to the lake happened in reality.


This happened on Sunday, 24 March 1951, shortly before the conference of the Pan-American Union’s Foreign Ministers. Juan Domingo Peron, Argentina’s President, made a sensational announcement to the press: “We have tamed the sun energy!” Then he introduced Ronald Richter, an obscure professor of Austrian decent who was heading the Argentinian nuclear project. A week after, Richter was awarded Gran Medalla Peronista, the highest state decoration of that time.

In a nutshell, Peron’s speech was dedicated to the experiment carried out at a nuclear power facility on Huemul Island in Lake Nahuel Huapi. By means of a thermotron developed by Richter, the researchers initiated a thermonuclear fusion that resulted in a controlled release of nuclear energy. This had been achieved by using the processes similar to those running inside the Sun. Given the floor, Richter added that Argentina had achieved in the laboratory what Americans produced through an H-bomb explosion. That was a totally new method of generating nuclear power without materials previously thought indispensable. According to Peron’s words, the discovery made on Huemul Island would allow for selling energy bottled like milk. The global scientific community did not believe the news that a developing country of 16 million people had outperformed major superpowers and achieved the world’s first controlled thermonuclear fusion. Multiple charges of fraud ensued from all around. Shortly afterwards, Peron appointed a group of researchers led by Jose Antonio Balseiro to carry out an investigation on the island. It did not take much time to expose the Huemul Project as a swindle. Richter left Buenos Aires in disgrace. This was the biggest scientific scandal of the century in Argentina, if not in the world.

Quite ironically, an abject failure gave rise to Argentina’s scientific achievements. After exposing the fraud of Richter’s experiments, Balseiro persuaded the president to carry all the costly equipment from the island to the not too distant Bariloche to finally make a truly worthwhile use of it. Oddly enough, this was the starting point for one of South America’s most respected scientific institutes (later named after Balseiro). Nowadays, it is a part of Argentina’s National Atomic Energy Commission, with the Bariloche Atomic Center located on its premises.



Along sunlit paths, we walked towards the Bariloche Atomic Center. It was hard to believe that people were doing research there. There were mountains, lakes and secular trees around, with colorful birds walking on the glades. The student camp was located nearby. Those willing to enroll on the institute have to go through a stiff entrance examination – only 30 out of 140–150 applicants are selected. The scholarship fully covers expenses on studies and residence. In addition, the students monthly receive a sum in cash equivalent to $500. The conditions needed for study and research are fully in place. I asked a young man how one could sit at books with such beauty around. He replied that he should not get distracted: once you fail the exams, you flunk out. That is why the students spend most of the time in libraries, despite occasional hikes in the mountains.

We reached the reactor building. Commissioned in 1982, the RA-6 pool-type light-water reactor for research purposes became the first one fully manufactured in Argentina. It was built by INVAP, a hi-tech company founded 40 years ago as a branch of the Balseiro Institute. The core has a thermal power of 1 MW and is fueled by U-235 enriched up to 20%. RA-6 is generally used for study and research. However, it has a bunker built in 2002 for experimental treatment of cancer by using boron neutron capture therapy. Among the patients was even a dog cured of a tumor on the neck.

Next day we took a ride to INVAP. The company began as a supplier of research reactors and, in time, extended its product range. We were shown several rooms used for the most ambitious developments – space technologies. Among them is a three-storey high room with its walls and ceiling covered with meter long white spikes. It is used for testing satellites by imitating the acceleration and noise during a spacecraft launch, with the spikes acting as sound suppressors. In other rooms, there are smiling young scientists assembling microchips. The assembly is carried out in a spotlessly clean environment as a single fleck of dust or a hair getting into a microchip may ignite in space and deactivate the entire system.

Despite summer holidays, the place is buzzing with activity. A special device is rocking a satellite component back and forth to test its vibration resistance. A huge space probe is soaring up to the ceiling. Radars are spinning, and control panel buttons are flashing with all colors of rainbow. And somewhere in dark rooms, the solar batteries for future spacecrafts are floating in zero gravity.

Over its existence, the Balseiro Institute in Bariloche has become an alma mater for many outstanding scientists. Among them was Juan Maldacena, a renowned physicist who shook the world in 1997 with a theory that the Universe is nothing but a hologram. Even if it turns out true, San Carlos de Bariloche is a hologram of extraordinary beauty.

By Ekaterina Ryabikovskaya