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The Development of Nuclear Energy Projects in Mexico, 1938–1967

Summary and Keywords

The early study of radioactivity (an important precursor to nuclear science) in Mexico was intertwined with a brilliant and determined woman’s arrival in the country. Marietta Blau Goldwin—Jewish by birth, a physicist by training, and a refugee by circumstance—helped pioneer nuclear emulsions by creating a portable technique that revolutionized the field. Blau, recommendation from Albert Einstein in hand, fled the Nazi’s invasion of Austria and arrived in Mexico City in 1938. There she initiated studies in atomic physics while teaching at the National Polytechnic Institute. This dramatic start to the country’s initial foray into the study of the atom illuminated how global political processes were inextricable from the development of nuclear science. Although her departure to the United States in 1944 impeded the momentum building behind atomic research, a core group of scientists at the National Autonomous University (UNAM) worked with government officials to promote nuclear technology during and after World War II. With the help of the Atoms for Peace program, this coalition of boosters succeeded in bringing a particle accelerator to the country in 1952.

Argentina and Brazil developed nuclear programs that rivaled, if not surpassed, the scope and complexity of Mexico’s during the post–World War II era. These three nations vied for recognition as regional authorities between 1964 and 1967, as countries throughout Latin America sent delegates to Mexico City to grapple with the so-called nuclear question. Talks culminated in the 1967 Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America, commonly known as the Tlatelolco Treaty. The language of the agreement focused on curtailing the proliferation of nuclear weapons but also carried implications for nuclear power’s adoption as an energy source. The Tlatelolco negotiations led to the formation of two blocs: one, led by Mexico, championed a cautious approach to nuclear development, and the other, led by Argentina and Brazil, resisted limitations on such programs. Examining the varying trajectories of Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil’s respective nuclear programs illustrates how Cold War issues took on distinctly regional characteristics as government officials reinterpreted them in ways that accounted for unique national agendas.

Keywords: Marietta Blau Goldwin, nuclear science, UNAM Institute of Physics, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Atoms for Peace, nuclear non-proliferation, Tlatelolco Treaty, nuclear energy

Marietta Blau Goldwin’s Early Career and Time in Mexico, 1930–1944

Examining Marietta Blau’s path to Mexico highlights how global processes and national contexts shaped technology transfer to and across Latin America. It also speaks to the importance of politics and the limitations of the sterile lab environment in developing science and technology. External factors influenced Blau’s professional trajectory from the start of her career. She was born in Vienna, Austria in 1894 to a well-off Jewish family that founded a successful music publishing company.1 Patriarchal and anti-Semitic structures restricted women and Jews in European societies, including limiting the number of Jews allowed to attend institutions of higher learning, but Blau found support for her work in the burgeoning study of radioactivity.2 The field, which Jewish scientists had helped pioneer, was something of a refuge for Blau. Beginning in 1930, she worked on nuclear emulsion at the Institut für Radiumforschung. The institute’s head, Stefan Meyer, had earned a reputation for supporting women researchers. While there, Blau found that the gendered expectations classifying the sciences as a male pursuit weakened in the area of overlap between the still-developing fields of nuclear physics, radiochemistry, and radiophysics. She collaborated with a number of other women and secured a grant from the Federation of Women Academics of Austria to continue her work in Göttingen. In 1933, Marie Curie invited her to come to the Institut du Radium in Paris, where she was given access to a concentrated form of polonium that greatly facilitated her studies of emulsion.3

Despite Blau’s success and measure of good fortune, politics cast a pall over her research from 1932 onward. A number of scientists collaborating with Blau on the emulsion project were Nazi sympathizers. While she relied on their support to validate her work, it became increasingly obvious that their worldview represented an existential threat to her and her family. In the summer of 1937, Blau and her fellow researchers achieved a breakthrough that they published in the journal Nature. It was the greatest achievement of her career to that point, but less than a year later her life fell into disarray when the Nazis occupied Vienna on March 11, 1938. Blau fled first to Oslo, Norway. Then, looking for a way to save her mother, she secured a letter of recommendation from Albert Einstein that helped her gain asylum in Mexico and a position as a professor of physics at the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico City.4 Blau’s time at Poli, as the school was known, reveals the challenges of developing a nuclear science program in an industrializing nation.

Mexico was in the midst of sweeping change in 1938 that directly and indirectly affected Blau’s work and the broader development of nuclear science in the country. Under the leadership of President Lázaro Cárdenas, the government exercised its constitutionally guaranteed right to nationalize the oil industry. That same year, the ruling party transformed from the Partido Nacional de la Revolución (PNR) to the Partido de la Revolución Mexicana (PRM), which consolidated power by reigning in the military and balancing the influence of labor unions with the popular sector. These moves foreshadowed an even greater shift in policy: one that promoted rapid industrialization at the expense of the countryside.5 The country’s early forays into atomic science occurred within the context of this sharp pivot, forcing modernizers to try juggling several tasks at once. That is to say, policy makers simultaneously attempted to recruit experts like Blau while searching for a way to provide them with the funding (which was scarce), lab equipment (which was elusive and usually required importation), and administrative support (which frequently did not exist beforehand) that they needed for their work.

One way the Cárdenas administration facilitated industrial modernization was by strengthening education. In 1937, federal officials established the National Polytechnic Institute. The college’s primary mission was to offer vocational skills to the working class as a way of incorporating them into the industrial sector.6 The prospect of introducing a scholar of Blau’s caliber to the faculty at Poli must have been exciting for school administrators and government officials. It presented an opportunity for the nation to look beyond basic industrial manufacturing, mostly in non-durable consumer goods, and to establish a program in perhaps the most cutting-edge and exciting field in all of science. Unfortunately for both the Cárdenas administration and Blau, the obstacles to leapfrogging past the country’s current stage of scientific and technological development proved too great. Poli simply did not possess the resources or organization necessary to make optimal use of Blau’s expertise.

Blau lived in Mexico from 1938 to 1944. While she was thankful for her safety and eager to demonstrate her value to her host nation, her ambitions to continue working on nuclear emulsion were soon frustrated. Her time in the country started auspiciously enough. The rector of Universidad Vasco de Quiroga in Morelia invited her to give a series of guest lectures. He was so impressed with Blau that he gave her full use of the school’s laboratory equipment, which he had recently purchased in a trip to the United States, but which none of the schools’ existing faculty had any use for and thus had unassembled. Setting up the laboratory gave Blau hope that she might soon be able to revive her research, but her duties at Poli, which included twenty-four hours a week of lectures, proved a terrible impediment to her progress. After considerable time traveling between the Poli and Vasco de Quiroga campuses, she finished preparing the equipment and was ready to begin her experiments. Unfortunately, after completing the week’s obligations at Poli, she returned one weekend to Morelia to find that the main apparatus had gone missing from the lab. It surfaced a short time later in a local pawnshop. Blau, crushed, wrote to Einstein to intervene, and in May 1944 she left Mexico for New York.7

Blau’s journey to Mexico highlights the complex transnational processes shaping technological exchange by the late 1940s. These processes can appear, at times, random and unforeseeable. Certainly nobody could expect that the onset of World War II would propel a scientist such as Blau to Mexico City, yet her departure to the United States reveals more predictable forces effecting scientific and technological development as well. The saga demonstrates how the power imbalance gave an already-industrialized United States the upper hand when competing for experts in an emergent field of science and technology. Blau’s decision to move on from the challenges of pioneering her field in a country undergoing profound political and industrial transformations to join a more stable, better-funded program in a richer nation is understandable. This is especially true when considering that relocating to Mexico was not the result of her freely made choice. Nevertheless, Blau’s case was not an isolated one. The unequal nature of the border that separated the United States from Mexico contributed to a flow of technological knowledge and equipment that, contradictorily, fostered dependency. Mexico often relied on its northern neighbor to help train experts and to obtain the materials required for studying atomic energy. Although US aid was necessary for creating sufficient technological momentum early on, it proved a double-edged sword.8 The networks of scholarships, grants, and other support extended by the US government and related actors to scientists in Mexico enticed some of them to abandon institutions in their homeland for opportunities north of the border.

Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and Early Developments in Atomic Science During World War II, 1938–1945

Blau’s exit was a lost opportunity for advancing atomic research in Mexico, but faculty members at the UNAM (National Autonomous University) worked independently to further the study of atomic science. Their efforts helped lay the groundwork for nuclear science during the post–World War II period. In 1938, the same year that Blau arrived in Mexico, UNAM established the Institute of Physics and Mathematics (later the Institute of Physics). The reorganization came in the midst of great upheaval. A student strike ousted the rector and prompted a restructuring of the school’s administration. The general instability that beset the university meant that, for the Institute of Physics’s first year of existence, the faculty’s work on atomic physics was more aspirational than functional. Problems organizing the department and obtaining funding hampered efforts to produce research, but the faculty did succeed in putting together a plan of study to obtain a four-year degree in physics.9 They also selected Alfredo Baños as their director, a decision that gave the Institute crucial leadership and a sense of direction. Baños had recently returned to the country after receiving a fellowship from the Guggenheim foundation to study theoretical physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He previously received his PhD at Johns Hopkins, where he studied cosmic radiation with a focus on the trajectory of cosmic rays.10

Baños’s time as director (1938–1943), although impeded by a shortage of funding and a degree of administrative disarray at the university level, provided an important foundation for atomic science in the country. He and other members of the Institute of Physics contributed ten articles to national and international journals and established their own journal, Anales (del Instituto de Física). The Institute of Physics also established an association with the Observatorio Astrofísico Nacional de Tonanzintla, created by President Manuel Ávila Camacho (1940–1946) in 1942, in order to study the relationship between magnetic storms and cosmic rays.11

Many of Baños’s colleagues shared his experience studying and working in the United States. Department chairs of the Ingeniería y Ciencias Físicas y Mathemáticas (which preceded the Institute of Physics) Sotero Prieto Rodríguez and Alfonso Nápoles Gándara were among the first wave of researchers to receive Guggenheim fellowships and, like Baños, worked at MIT. Engineer Ricardo Monges Lopez and professors Arturo Compton and Manuel Sandoval Vallarta (who succeeded Baños as the interim director of the Institute) also collaborated with faculty members at MIT and the University of Chicago to construct the Institute’s cosmic rays laboratory and conduct experiments. Close connections between UNAM’s Institute of Physics and institutions in the United States helped faculty members advance their studies more rapidly and allowed them to obtain important outside funding. In 1941, Baños reached out to the Rockefeller Foundation for a $5,000 donation in order to obtain laboratory equipment that the school could not provide.12 Yet these connections went both ways, and in 1943 Baños left Mexico to work for MIT.13

Baños provided crucial leadership early on, but the Institute of Physics transformed into a better-established and more impactful organization during the period that followed. From 1943 onward, its leaders worked within governmental structures to promote a national nuclear program. This began with Sandoval, who had taught Baños at MIT before becoming the interim director. Known for his skills both as a scientist and networker, Sandoval expanded the Institute of Physics’s network, influence, and the scope of its research. He found donations to enlarge the UNAM library’s physics collection and worked to reform the bachelor’s degree program in physics and mathematics. He also hired Carlos Graef Fernández, who became director a few months later. Graef Fernández, like Baños, had previously studied under Sandoval at MIT. Afterward, Graef Fernández received a position at the Tonanzintla Observatory, where Sandoval recruited him to work on research related to US mathematician George David Birkohoff’s theories related to time. As director, Graef Fernández created a separate section for the study of atomic physics and lobbied for the adoption of nuclear energy. He, together with Sandoval and, later, Nabor Carillo, became the leading advocates for the advancement of nuclear science and technology in the country.14

The onset of World War II helped convince government officials to increase funding and institutional support for research that facilitated the country’s ability to develop a nuclear program in the 1950s and, just as importantly, added crucial organizational infrastructure. In 1941, President Ávila Camacho created the Comisión Impulsora y Coordinadora de la Investigación Cientifica (CICIC) as part of his agenda to speed industrial progress and achieve a greater degree of technological independence. In 1943, Sandoval was hired as the president of the CICIC and collaborated with UNAM to found two new laboratories: one to study radioactivity and the other electromagnetism. The CICIC and the country’s Office of Economic Affairs also worked with UNAM’s Institute of Geology to begin finding strategic uranium reserves in the country. Before this point, UNAM’s interest in nuclear science was mostly limited to the realm of theory and relegated to the Institute of Physics.15

Atomic science and technology gained momentum throughout the course of World War II. The once-niche study of the atom matured into an established field that drew the attention of top policymakers, who began to see its value as related to the national interest. The US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 nevertheless caused a backlash among the public. Popular concerns, together with the international political agenda driving the Atoms for Peace program, ultimately shaped how Mexico’s nuclear policy developed after the war.

Post–World War II Nuclear Development and the So-Called Mexican Miracle, 1945–1952

The national news media reacted to US President Harry Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki with shock and horror. Many of the articles and editorials that ran in newspapers such as El Universal and El Nacional focused on the weapon’s apocalyptic potential. One editorialist compared the attacks to atrocities committed by Nazis in their concentration camps. Others feared that the dawning of the nuclear age would separate the world into technological haves and have-nots. This tone contrasted with that taken by the Argentinian press, which tended to downplay the negative aspects of the bombing in favor of highlighting the scientific significance of the events.16

Graef Fernández and other Institute of Physics scientists responded to public concerns in an interview in El Nacional. They argued that investment in nuclear technology could yield cheap, abundant energy for the country and all of humanity. They further suggested that, used properly, it would prevent future wars. Sandoval echoed these sentiments in a lecture at the Colegio Nacional on August 8, 1945. He asserted that nuclear research was neither inherently good nor bad, making its application a concern for politicians, not the scientific community. Luis Enrique Erro, the director of the Tonanzintla Observatory, argued in El Universal that diplomacy and international law would shield nations such as his own from the consequences of a nuclear arms race.17 The public outcry against the bombings and the specter of nuclear proliferation eventually led most scientists and national politicians to adopt a position in support of nuclear research, but only for peaceful uses like energy or in medical technology.18

Nuclear research flourished within the political and economic contexts of the so-called Mexican Miracle of the late 1940s and 1950s, despite popular apprehensions.19 President Miguel Aléman (1946–1952) ushered in a new generation of college-educated politicians—the first since the revolution who had not fought in the country’s civil war—who believed strengthening ties to the United States was crucial to the economic development of the nation. His administration, buoyed by global economic expansion, also displayed a willingness to invest in large-scale technological projects as part of its modernizing vision for the country. This combination of close ties with the United States and increased state control over industrial development laid the foundation for the country’s post-war nuclear energy program while further bolstering nuclear research.

The national government signaled its intent to undertake nuclear energy production with a series of presidential decrees that nationalized radioactive minerals (1945), monopolized their exploitation (1946), and empowered the Comisión de Fomento Minero to regulate them (1948).20 In 1946, Aléman’s administration sent Carillo as an observer of the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests carried out by the US government. Carillo, who coordinated between UNAM and the CICIC and later became the school’s rector, had strong connections to Harvard and was one of the chief boosters for nuclear technology in the country.21 After witnessing the tests, he worked to obtain the country’s first atomic particle accelerator from the US-based High Voltage Engineering Corporation. The accelerator, a 2 MV Van de Graaf, came with the extravagant price tag of a million pesos (which dwarfed the yearly departmental budget of UNAM’s Institute of Physics) and required the construction of a new laboratory. Aléman enthusiastically supported the project, despite the expense, as a symbol of the nation’s commitment to modernization. The accelerator’s arrival in 1952 allowed UNAM to gain international prestige as a leader in experimental nuclear physics, furthered Aléman’s political agenda, and laid the foundation for a national nuclear program.22

National political and economic contexts facilitated the growth of the country’s nuclear capabilities in the post-war period. Although public opposition to nuclear weaponry complicated scientists’ efforts to lobby for nuclear research, they successfully reframed the debate to focus on the technology’s peaceful applications. Nuclear advocates found an ally in Miguel Aléman, whose agenda was legitimized through their success. The administration’s friendliness toward the United States also facilitated technological development and brought the two nations closer together, especially in regard to how their leaders viewed nuclear policy throughout the hemisphere.

Atoms for Peace and Nuclear Development in Latin America, 1953–1964

On December 8, 1953, Dwight Eisenhower delivered a speech to the United Nations calling for the spread of peaceful nuclear knowledge to counter the threat of nuclear war. Known as the Atoms for Peace speech, it heralded a UN program designed to modernize underdeveloped nations through the spread of nuclear science and technology without utility in warfare.23 The initiative contributed to the Cold War–era struggle over the area that contemporaries referred to as the Third World. In the context of Latin America, it highlights how the United States sought to strengthen its relationship with governments while maintaining some level of control over the spread of nuclear knowledge. That is not to say that the Latin American participants entered into the program because they were naïve, nor does it imply that they did not further their own agendas. In Mexico’s case, the logic underpinning the UN’s Atoms for Peace initiative fit comfortably with the national government’s push to create a civil nuclear program.

Mexico participated in Atoms for Peace primarily through the Comisión Nacional Energía Nuclear (CNEN), which Adolfo Ruíz Cortines’s government created in 1957. Both Sandoval and Carillo received appointments to the organization’s advisory board, evidence of its close connection with UNAM. CNEN coordinated with the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the US-led Inter-American Nuclear Energy Commission (IANEC) in efforts to advance nuclear energy production, but early initiatives were more focused on the production of radioisotopes for medical and agricultural programs. These programs unfolded across regional boundaries, forging a network of national nuclear programs throughout Latin America.24

In the decade preceding the Tlatelolco talks, Mexican nuclear experts engaged with their counterparts from other Latin American nations by participating in conferences organized by the IANEC. The first conference met at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in 1957. Afterward, it was hosted by Argentina in 1959, Brazil in 1961, Mexico in 1962, and Chile in 1964.25 The scientists who attended not only networked but also acted as unofficial diplomats, further blending the already-nebulous boundary between political and scientific exchange that existed during the Cold War. Mexico bolstered its profile as a leader among Latin American nations in other ways as well. The country was invited to participate in the UN’s Committee for the Studies of the Atomic Radiation Effects, which measured fallout from nuclear weapons tests. CNEN also became a leader in the production and distribution of radioisotopes and, by extension, the field of radiochemistry.26

Argentina and Brazil both developed robust nuclear programs during the post–World War II era that were distinctive from Mexico’s in a number of ways. Although Argentina had some experience with physics, primarily though the National Observatory of Córdoba, neither it nor Brazil truly made an effort to foster nuclear advancement until after World War II.27 All three nations participated in Atoms for Peace, but neither of the South American governments embraced the ideology of the “peaceful atom” to the extent that Mexico did. While Mexico went out of its way to stress the civil nature of its program, Argentina and Brazil both involved their militaries in the administration of theirs. Both countries also focused more on nuclear energy programs as a means of attaining energy independence than Mexico did. That is to say, Argentina and Brazil’s early efforts at bolstering nuclearity shared important similarities that, despite the countries being regional rivals, put them on a different trajectory to Mexico and opened up the possibility for cooperation on nuclear policy issues.28

Argentinian President Juan D. Perón took the first major step toward establishing a nuclear power project in 1948 when he backed Austrian physicist and former Nazi scientist Ronald Richter’s bid to create nuclear fusion. Perón, like Aléman, pursued a modernist agenda. His administration used state funding to build Richter an expansive and costly laboratory in an isolated portion of the Río Negro province in Patagonia.29 The navy took control of the facility after Richter’s work was discovered to be a fraud in 1952 and transferred authority to the Atomic Comisión Nacional de Energía Atomica (CNEA), led by Navy Captain Pedro Iraolagoitía.30 Less than two months before a coup d’état toppled Perón’s regime in September 1955, Argentina entered into the Atoms for Peace program. Over the course of the next decade, the focal point for nuclear research in the country moved to CNEA’s Nuclear Physics Department in Buenos Aires, and the military government worked with the IAEA and IANEC to purchase a nuclear reactor.31

Brazil first engaged in transnational nuclear technology as a supplier of radioactive material to the US Manhattan Project during World War II. The country continued to import uranium and other atomic minerals through the mid-1950s. This changed when Admiral Álvaro Alberto succeeded in convincing the national government to adopt a so-called specific compensation policy. The arc of the specific compensation policy demonstrates the desire among Brazilian nuclear policy advocates to aggressively pursue an autonomous nuclear program. The policy’s goal was to deal uranium in exchange for nuclear technology, most importantly a nuclear reactor. Although it did eventually yield Brazil a particle accelerator, friction between US efforts to limit the spread of dual-use nuclear technology and the Getúlio Vargas government’s desire to enrich uranium led officials in his government to look to elsewhere, principally West Germany.32 The first centrifuges arrived from West Germany despite US protests in 1957 during Juscelino Kubitschek’s administration, although scientists did not successfully enrich uranium for another decade. In 1964, just as the Tlatelolco talks began, a military coup d’état toppled Kubitschek. The military government that took power after the coup demonstrated an even greater determination to pursue a nuclear program outside the framework laid out by Atoms for Peace.33

The Tlatelolco Talks, 1963–1967

The October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis convinced Latin American leaders they needed to take action to prevent nuclear catastrophe in the region. Numerous Latin American nations, including Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, had discussed the possibility of creating a nuclear-free zone in part, or all, of Latin America prior to the Tlatelolco talks. They nevertheless did so independently or with very limited international partnerships. The crisis lent new urgency to the issue that led to broader cooperation. The decision to meet in Mexico City near the Plaza of the Three Cultures came after a proposal by Brazil, Chile, and Ecuador to the UN’s First Committee was deferred at the request of the United States, which likely balked at provisions prohibiting the transfer and storage of atomic weapons in the region.34

Hosting the talks allowed Mexico’s political leaders to establish the country as a regional authority on nuclear proliferation. Officials looked to influence hemispheric diplomacy, evangelizing their perspective on peaceful nuclear development. President Adolfo López Mateo’s administration had banned nuclear weapons and launching devices on national soil a year before the talks, a decision that fit within the nation’s longer history with the issue. The negotiations presented the administration with a chance to go further by forging a comprehensive agreement that was at once autonomous from any US organization while still acceptable to the northern superpower, something that other nations had failed to do.35

A great sense of optimism prevailed during the early phase of the negotiations. Ambassador to Brazil Alfonso García Robles shouldered much of the responsibility for organizing the talks and gaining Brazil’s initial backing. Informal discussions took place from September 10–12, 1963. Participants hailed the meeting as productive, and they succeeded in creating an outline that remained mostly in place for the entirety of the discussions, and which directly influenced the final structure of the treaty. Initially, delegates from participating nations also agreed in principal to the idea of third-party inspections. This was normally a difficult hurdle to clear and seemed to bode well, although delegates did not agree on whether the IAEA or IANEC should take charge of the inspections. These early successes nevertheless belied the difficulties that lay ahead.36

Changing national realities made it less feasible to reconcile the agendas of Argentina and Brazil with those of the Mexican government. Brazil’s military regime pivoted on the issue of nuclear proliferation in 1966. Officials in General Castillo Branco’s administration seized on nuclear development and energy independence as a political issue to rally support for their unpopular regime. By aggressively pushing to advance the country’s nuclear program, Branco’s government hoped to make good on its promise to rapidly modernize the country. At the same time, long-standing but newly heightened competition with Argentina over the Rio de la Plata region led concerned Brazilian officials to believe that working within the framework taking shape in Tlatelolco would inhibit its nuclear program going forward, which might lead Argentina to gain the upper hand. Somewhat ironically, these concerns pushed Brazil to support the skepticism with which Argentina’s new military government approached the talks.37

General Marshal Costa e Silva’s ascension to the head of the Brazilian government in March 1967 further widened the policy gap between his country and Mexico. He made public statements announcing that Brasilia would become the “atomic capital of Latin America,” and his administration demanded that the country be allowed under the terms of the treaty to detonate nuclear explosives for what they deemed peaceful ends. This position faced resistance by the Mexican delegation and the countries in its bloc, many of which were less technologically developed nations with little or no nuclear capacity. In May 1967, General Costa signed a treaty with France to develop nuclear reactors in exchange for uranium. As part of this, France donated equipment and lent Brazil six million dollars for uranium prospecting, with the understanding that Brazil would sell the uranium back to France at below market value.38

Unlike Brazil, which grew increasingly resistant to the non-proliferation agreement as the talks dragged on, Argentinian delegates showed a degree of ambivalence from the outset. López Mateo’s administration failed to invite representatives from Argentina to the informal, precursory meeting held in September 1963. Mexico’s official position was that it only invited the nations that had co-sponsored Brazil’s failed attempt to create a nuclear-free zone in 1962: Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, and Ecuador. However, turbulence in Argentinian national politics, culminating in the ousting of President Arturo Umberto Ilia, almost certainly played a role. Regardless of the reason, the Argentinian leadership took it as a slight, and its representatives were characterized as somewhat disinterested in the negotiations.39

Argentina clashed with Mexico, Panama, Chile, and other nations on important policy issues that arose independently of diplomatic hurt feelings. A major point of contention between Argentina and the Mexican bloc related to Cuba. Argentina took a hard stance against Cuba, especially after the 1966 coup that led Juan Carlos Onganía to establish a military dictatorship. The Argentinian government pushed for inspections to be conducted through the Organization of American States (OAS), which excluded the Castro government, rather than through the UN’s IAEA. Argentinian delegates were also adamant that the treaty should be binding on non–Latin American countries with territorial interests. This was intended to prevent another situation similar to the Cuban Missile Crisis, wherein the Soviet Union placed nuclear warheads in Cuba, but it also would apply to the United States. As such, it should be viewed as part of Argentina’s genuine desire to curb undue influence from outside powers in the region.40

Argentina and Brazil’s decision not to ratify the Tlatelolco accord at the end of the talks reflected their shared belief that the agreement would hamper nuclear development and that signing it ran counter to their respective national interests. Furthermore, officials in both governments associated nuclear development with anticommunism and national security. Argentina in particular saw US-supported efforts to limit the nuclear capacity of anticommunist governments as inconsistent with its broader Cold War strategy in the hemisphere. Colombia, Chile, and Venezuela, among others, joined Argentina and Brazil as holdouts. This list of countries included some of Latin America’s more industrialized nations, indicating that governments with nuclear ambitions shared concerns that the agreement might inhibit progress. In the years that followed, Argentina and Brazil further cemented their roles as leaders of nuclear development in South America. Moreover, they emerged as important figures in a global community of non-aligned nations that saw investment in nuclear programs as crucial to modernization.41

The Legacy of the Tlatelolco Accord and Mexican Nuclear Policy

The Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America was an important success for Mexico’s government, despite its initial rejection by several politically important nations in the region. Diplomats established their country as a leader on nuclear policy, while doing much to advance the nation’s favored answer to the “nuclear question.” Many of the countries following Mexico’s lead at the negotiations were less technologically developed than those in the Argentinian-Brazilian bloc, but that did not diminish Mexico’s accomplishment. Its representatives positioned their country as a voice for peace that protected the interests of Latin America as a whole, regardless of individual nations’ economic or industrial power.

The framework for non-proliferation produced at the talks proved more effective as time went on. Thirteen nations had signed onto the treaty by the 1969 Preliminary Meeting for the Constitution for the Organization for the Proscription of Nuclear Arms in Latin America (REOPANAL), and more did so throughout the next several decades. Argentina, Brazil, and Chile finally joined the treaty in 1994, signaling a renewed commitment to non-proliferation following the collapse of their respective dictatorships and return to democracy.42

Mexico continued to pursue nuclear energy in the decades following the treaty negotiations. Officials drafted plans for a dual-purpose, nuclear-powered water desalinization and energy plant on the country’s northern border in the late 1960s and 1970s. They hoped to construct and administer the plant with US cooperation, but the project was abandoned due to its prohibitive costs and wavering support from the United States. In 1979, leaders of the indigenous community of Sante Fé, Michoacan successfully protested against attempts to construct a nuclear plant on Lake Pátzcuaro. The controversy foreshadowed popular dissatisfaction with the national government’s plans to build the Laguna Verde nuclear power plant near Palma Sola, Veracruz.43

Widespread anti-nuclear activism, led by concerned mothers and cattle ranchers in the areas surrounding Laguna Verde, were viewed as part of an early environmentalist and health movement in the country, but demonstrations also reflected deep dissatisfaction with the lack of democracy and bureaucratic ineptitude under the rule of the Partido Revolucionario Institutional (PRI). President Miguel de la Madrid’s announcement on September 1, 1986, that officials would move forward with loading the Laguna Verde reactor caused outrage and fear among nearby communities. Concerned citizens pointed to the Chernobyl disaster in the Soviet Union just months before as a reason why the government should halt construction on the plant. Third-party investigations revealed that the plant, which sat on a fault line in the shadow of a volcano, employed outdated technology. Residents also expressed concerns regarding the emergency plan in the event of an accident or meltdown. De la Madrid’s administration decided to go forward with loading the reactor in late 1988. The decision sparked even greater outrage that, combined with the scandal over the results of that year’s election, fueled nationwide resentment toward the PRI and allegations that the party was technocratic, out of touch, and corrupt.44

The experiences of Marietta Blau Goldwin and the scientists at UNAM’s Institute of Physics bring to light the challenges faced by a country endeavoring to develop an emergent (and costly) scientific and technological field while in the midst of radical industrial transformations. Despite Mexico’s disadvantages when competing with the United States to acquire and retain talented experts, nuclear boosters in the country did an admirable job of navigating complex, Cold War–era international political contexts while advocating for a national nuclear program. Officials and experts employed a sophisticated strategy that promoted modernization domestically and propelled the country to a leadership role in the hemisphere in regard to nuclear diplomacy. Their decision to publicize the country’s nuclear program as peaceful proved especially canny. It allowed them to maintain a strong relationship with the United States while pursuing an independent foreign policy. Although several of Latin America’s most technologically advanced nations did not follow Mexico’s lead, at least initially, this had less to do with any weakness in its approach and more to do with the diverse national interests of the individual countries that participated in the Tlatelolco talks. For all the talk of the peaceful atom internationally, however, the longer history of nuclear energy in the country revealed that PRI-ísta officials viewed domestic nuclear policy as the rightful realm of technocrats and not an issue open for democratic debate.

Discussion of the Literature

The study of nuclear history is a growing but still underdeveloped subject within the field of the history of science and technology in Latin America. The Cold War era remains the period of focus for most studies, including some of the most important and well-written works on the topic. The literature on Mexico is less substantial than that on Argentina and Brazil, but there are still contributions worth noting. Gisela Mateos and Edna Suárez-Díaz have co-authored a number of essential works dealing with the Atoms for Peace program, focusing both on Mexico and Latin America broadly. Raúl Domínguez Martínez’s Historia de la Física Nuclear en México and Luz Fernanda Azuela and José Luis Talancón’s Contracoirriente: Historia de la energía nuclear en México (1945–1995) provide excellent overviews that take seriously national political contexts.45 The former monograph focuses more on science. Domínguez Martínez offers a mostly institutional history of the Institute of Physics at UNAM and other centers of scientific research and learning where nuclear science in the country first took shape, privileging the professional careers of the scientists and experts driving nuclear research. Azuela and Talancón focus more on technology. The authors contextualize the development of the country’s nuclear energy projects within political discourses that reflected the hope of technological development on the one hand and the fear of the nuclear power’s potentially devastating effects on the other.

Historians of South America, in particular national historians of Argentina, have done more to examine the impact of nuclear science and technology than their Mexican counterparts. Johnathan Hagood’s “Bottling Atomic Energy: Technology, Politics, and the State in Peronist Argentina” does a good job of turning the narrative about the failed Proyect Huemul on its head by arguing that, despite the reactions from international onlookers, the saga strengthened Perón’s domestic agenda.46 Diego Hurrado de Mendoza examines the role of the military in shaping Argentina’s nuclear energy program. In David Sheinin’s article, “Nuclear Development and the Shaping of an Independent Argentine Foreign Policy, 1950–1990,” the author sheds light on the broader political implications of Argentina’s nuclear policy, explaining how it allowed the country to play an important role in exporting technology to non-aligned nations during the Cold War.47 He convincingly argues that Argentina’s nuclear program remained a consistent part of its foreign policy spanning successive regimes for nearly fifty years. Similarly for Brazil, Carlo Patti’s research on the origins of the country’s nuclear program and its role in shaping foreign policy reveals that national officials worked actively to establish connections with other developing, non-aligned nations.

An area that requires more exploration by scholars is the Treaty of Tlatelolco and the negotiations that produced it. John Reddick’s various publications are the best sources on the topic, but the significance of the accord warrants further study. An updated, monograph-length work that takes into account the full legacy of the treaty and places it within a broader historical context is warranted. Mateos and Suárez-Díaz’s “‘We Are Not a Rich Country to Waste Our Resources on Expensive Toys’: Mexico’s Version of Atoms for Peace” offers some historiographic insight into the topic and Mexican diplomacy during the Cold War more generally.48

Another lacuna worth addressing is the dearth of cultural histories dealing with nuclear science and technology. Regis Cabral’s investigations of popular reactions in Latin America to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki stand out as valuable contributions to an otherwise understudied area. Deeper research into how nuclear development contributed to cultural modernity, and vice-versa, is badly needed. That said, Mateos, Adriana Minor, and Valeria Sánchez Michel’s “Una Modernidad Anunciada: Historia de Van de Graaff de Ciudad” demonstrates the great potential for a cultural analysis of nuclear programs by touching on the significance of the murals painted at the Van de Graaff accelerator facility at UNAM.49

Maria Rentetzi’s Trafficking Materials and Gendered Experimental Practices: Radium Research in Early Century Vienna gives the most extensive account of Blau’s life.50 The author employs a gendered perspective, placing Blau’s story within the larger contexts of the institutions, material culture, and networks of scientists involved in trafficking radium and researching radioactivity in Vienna, from the 1920s through the 1940s. Peter Galison also wrote a biographic article, “Marietta Blau: Between Nazis and Nuclei,” and several authors reference her work in Mexico, usually in passing, when discussing the country’s early nuclear history.51 Greater investigation into work in Mexico, as well as the lives of the scientists at UNAM’s Institute of Physics, would go a long way in shedding light on the early stages of nuclear development in the country. A prosopography looking at this group of experts, their shared international connections (especially through the Guggenheim fellowship), and their relationships would provide crucial insight into the formative years the country’s nuclear institutions.

Primary Sources

The Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México houses collections containing documents and correspondence significant to the institution’s nuclear physics program and its collaboration with the Comisión Impulsora y Coordinadora de la Investigación Cientifica at the Archivo de la Coordinación de la Investigación Científica (ACIC-UNAM), the Archivo del Consejo Universitario (ACU-UNAM), and the Archivo Histórico de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (AHUNAM). UNAM’s Hemeroteca Nacional de Mexico houses historical newspapers and periodicals.

The Archivo General de la Nación’s (AGN) Presidential Collection contains government documents and correspondence, including presidential orders and speeches, related to national nuclear policy. The Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores (SRE) holds international agreements and related documents in its Archivo Historico Genaro Estrada. Historical documents can also be found at the Instituto Nacional de Investigaciones Nucleares (ININ). Newspaper and periodical coverage relating to the country’s nuclear policy can be found at the Biblioteca Miguel Lerdo de Tejada. The library’s Fondo Histórico de Hacienda provides collections of newspaper clippings organized thematically that are especially helpful.

The Archivo Histórico Científico Manuel Sandoval Vallarta is a personal archive that contains documents pertaining both to Sandoval’s life and nuclear research in Mexico. Correspondence between Marietta Blau Goldwin and Albert Einstein is housed at the Princeton University Libraries’ Albert Einstein Papers collection. Documents related to Blau’s career also exist at the Archiv der Republik in Vienna, Austria.

The Wilson Center Digital Archive’s Brazilian Nuclear History collection and its Origins of Brazil-Argentina Nuclear Cooperation collection contain valuable documents related to nuclear development and foreign policy in South America during the Cold War. The Archivo General de la Nación of Argentina and the Arquivo Nacional of Brazil are good starting places for primary sources related to the nations’ respective nuclear programs, and both countries have their own nuclear archives: the Archivo Instituto Balseiro of the Centro Atómico Bariloche at San Carlos Bariloche in Argentina and the Comissao Nacional de Energia Nuclear in Brazil. The National Archives and Records Administration in the United States houses important information on the US Atomic Energy Commission, which was involved in the transfer of technology and expertise to and from Latin American countries. The IAEA Archive in Vienna contains official documents on the Atoms for Peace Program, including in Latin America.

Further Reading

Azuela, Fernanda, and Luz José Luis Talancón. Contracoirriente: Historia de la energía nuclear en México (1945–1995). México: Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales, 1999.Find this resource:

    de la Paz Ramos Lara, María. “Particle Accelerators in Mexico.” Historical Studies in Physical and Biological Sciences 36, no. 2 (2006): 297–309.Find this resource:

      Domínguez Martínez, Raúl. Historia de la Física Nuclear en México, 1933–1963. Mexico: Centro de Estudios Sobre la Universidad UNAM, 2000.Find this resource:

        Galison, Peter. “Marietta Blau: Between Nazis and Nuclei.” Physics Today 97, no. 50 (1997): 42–48.Find this resource:

          García-Gorena, Velma. Mothers and the Mexican Anti-Nuclear Power Movement: Society, Environment and Place. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1999.Find this resource:

            Hagood, Jonathan. “Bottling Atomic Energy: Technology, Politics, and the State in Peronist Argentina.” In Beyond Imported Magic: Essays on Science, Technology, and Society in Latin America. Edited by Eden Medina, Ivan da Costa Marques, and Christina Holmes, 267–285. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014.Find this resource:

              Hurtado de Mendoza, Diego. “Autonomy, even Regional Hegemony: Argentina and the ‘Hard Way’ toward Its First Research Reactor (1945–1958).” Science in Context 18, no. 2 (2005): 285–308.Find this resource:

                Hurtado de Mendoza, Diego, and Ana Maria Vara. “Winding Roads to Big Science: Experimental Physics in Argentina and Brazil.” Science, Technology and Society 12, no. 1 (2007): 27–48.Find this resource:

                  Mateos, Gisela, Adriana Minor, and Valeria Sánchez Michel. “Una Modernidad Anunciada: Historia del Van de Graaff de Ciudad Universitaria.” Historia Mexicana, El Colegio de México 68, no. 4 (2012): 415–442.Find this resource:

                    Mateos, Gisela, and Edna Suárez-Díaz. “Peaceful Atoms in Mexico.” In Beyond Imported Magic: Essays on Science, Technology, and Society in Latin America. Edited by Eden Medina, Ivan da Costa Marques, and Christina Holmes, 287–303. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014.Find this resource:

                      Mateos, Gisela, and Edna Suárez-Díaz. “Atoms for Peace in Latin America.” In The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History. Edited by William Beezley. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

                        Mateos, Gisela, and Edna Suárez-Díaz. “‘We Are Not a Rich Country to Waste Our Resources on Expensive Toys’: Mexico’s Version of Atoms for Peace.” History and Technology 31, no. 3 (2016): 243–258.Find this resource:

                          Patti, Carlo. “The Origins of the Brazilian Nuclear Programme, 1951–1955.” Cold War History 15, no. 3 (2015): 353–373.Find this resource:

                            Redick, John Robert. Military Potential of Latin American Nuclear Energy Programs. Beverly Hills: Sage, 1972.Find this resource:

                              Rentetzi, Maria. Trafficking Materials and Gendered Experimental Practices: Radium Research in Early 20th Century Vienna. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

                                Sheinin, David. “Nuclear Development and the Shaping of an Independent Argentine Foreign Policy, 1950–1990.” Estudios Interdisciplinarios de América Latina y el Caribe 16, no. 2 (2005): 38–62.Find this resource:

                                  Notes:

                                  (2.) For a discussion of the gendered dimensions of the study of radioactivity in Vienna during this period, see Maria Rentetzi, Trafficking Materials and Gendered Experimental Practices: Radium Research in Early 20th Century Vienna (New York: Colombia University Press, 2008), particularly chap. 2, 36–64. For a discussion of the relationship between Jewish scientists and the study of the atom in Europe, see David Hollinger, “Why Are Jews Preeminent in Science and Scholarship? The Veblen Thesis Reconsidered,” Aelph: Historical Studies in Science and Judaism 2 (2002): 145–163, here 146.

                                  (3.) Galison, “Marietta Blau,” 43; and Rentetzi, Trafficking Materials, 181–184.

                                  (4.) Galison, “Marietta Blau,” 43–44; and Rentetzi, Trafficking Materials, 204–205, 212–214.

                                  (5.) Ariel Jose Contreras, México 1940: Industrialización y crisis política (México City: Siglo Vientiuno Editores, 1977), 1–5; and Luis Javier Garrido, El Partido de la Revolución Institutionalizada (México: Siglo Vientiuno Editores, 1982), 233–234.

                                  (6.) Brown to U.S. Secretary of State, “Commercial and Technical Education in Mexico,” September 10, 1938, [USDS] 812.42/456. University of Arizona Library, Microforms, Tucson, AZ.

                                  (7.) Galison, “Marietta Blau,” 45–46.

                                  (8.) For more on the concept of technological momentum, see Thomas Hughes, “Technological Momentum,” in Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism, ed. Merritt Roe Smith and Leo Marx (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994), 107–113; and see also Thomas Hughes, “Technological Momentum in History,” Past and Present 44 (1969): 106–132.

                                  (10.) Azuela and Talancón, Contracoirriente, 38–39.

                                  (11.) Hereafter referred to as the Tonanzintla Observatory. Domínguez Martínez, Historia de la Física Nuclear, 49, 51, 60–61, 68; and Azuela and Talancón, Contracoirriente, 37–38.

                                  (12.) Domínguez Martínez, Historia de la Física Nuclear, 48–49, 60–61; and Azuela and Talancón, Contracoirriente, 37–38.

                                  (13.) “In Memorium: Alfredo Baños Jr., Physics & Astronomy,” UC History Digital Archives, University of California, 1997.

                                  (14.) Domínguez Martínez, Historia de la Física Nuclear, 61, 66–69; Azuela and Talancón, Contracoirriente, 41–43; and María de la Paz Ramos Lara, “Particle Accelerators in Mexico,” Historical Studies in Physical and Biological Sciences 36, no. 2 (2006): 299.

                                  (16.) Regis Cabral, “The Mexican Reactions to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki Tragedies of 1945,” Quipu 4, no. 1 (1987): 81–118, here 82–84, 92–93, 97; and Regis Cabral, “The Interaction of Science and Diplomacy in Latin America, the United States and Nuclear Energy 1945–1955” (PhD diss., University of Chicago, 1986), 77–79.

                                  (17.) Cabral, “Mexican Reactions,” 82, 84, 87–88, 91, 93, 97.

                                  (18.) President Adolfo Ruiz Cortines’s decision to avoid the term “atomic,” which he felt carried bellicose connotations, when naming the newly created Comisión Nacional de Energía Nuclear (CNEN) reflected this tradition of stressing the peaceful nature of the country’s nuclear program. See Gisela Mateos and Edna Suárez-Díaz, “Peaceful Atoms in Mexico,” in Beyond Imported Magic: Essays on Science, Technology, and Society in Latin America, ed. Eden Medina, Ivan da Costa Marques, and Christina Holmes (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014), 287–303, here 292–293.

                                  (19.) The Mexican Miracle refers to a period of profound economic growth following World War II that masked social inequality and structural instability in the government’s economic policy, making it more mirage than miracle.

                                  (20.) Mateos and Suárez, “Peaceful Atoms in Mexico,” 292.

                                  (21.) Ramos, “Particle Accelerators in Mexico,” 298; and Mateos, Minor, and Sánchez, “Una Modernidad Anunciada,” 423–424.

                                  (22.) Ramos, “Particle Accelerators in Mexico,” 299–302.

                                  (23.) Gisela Mateos and Edna Suárez-Díaz, “Atoms for Peace in Latin America,” in The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History, ed. William Beezley (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 2. For the full speech, see also Dwight Eisenhower, “Atoms for Peace Draft,” Eisenhower Presidential Library Digital Archive, November 28, 1953.

                                  (24.) Mateos and Suárez, “Peaceful Atoms in Mexico,” 292–293.

                                  (25.) Mateos and Suárez, “Peaceful Atoms in Mexico,” 293.

                                  (26.) Gisela Mateos and Edna Suárez-Díaz, “Clouds, Airplanes, Trucks, and People: Carrying Radioisotopes to and across Mexico,” Dynamis 35, no. 2 (2015): 279–305, here 291–298. The authors note that, just as in Vienna during the interwar period, women predominated in the field of radiochemistry in Mexico. The parallels are interesting and, in both cases, may have had something to do with the field being emergent, but in the Mexican case there is a history of women in chemistry that dates back to at least 1919, with the opening of UNAM’s National School of Chemical Sciences.

                                  (28.) Gabrielle Hecht, The Radiance of France (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988), 26–27. Hecht uses the term “nuclearity” to account for a broader spectrum of political and technological activities that relate to nuclear capacity. As such, the term is an alternative for a binary description of something as either nuclear or non-nuclear. Mateos and Suárez-Díaz also adopted Hecht’s definition of nuclearity for their essay “Peaceful Atoms in Mexico.”

                                  (29.) Mendoza and Vara, “Winding Roads to Big Science,” 29.

                                  (32.) That is, nuclear technology with the potential for both civil and military applications.

                                  (33.) Carlo Patti, “The Origins of the Brazilian Nuclear Programme, 1951–1955,” Cold War History 15, no. 3 (2015): 353–373, here 353–354, 356, 358–359, 364, 370–373.

                                  (34.) John Robert Redick, “The Politics of Denuclearization: Study of the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America” (PhD diss., University of Virginia, 1970), 16, 19, 25–26, 91–92, 94–96.

                                  (35.) Redick, “Politics of Denuclearization,” 101–103.

                                  (36.) Redick, “Politics of Denuclearization,” 101–103.

                                  (37.) Redick, “Politics of Denuclearization,” 221–227.

                                  (38.) Redick, “Politics of Denuclearization,” 227–228; and Arturo Sotomayor, U.S.–Latin American Relations: From Commitment to Defiance, Project Advanced Systems and Concepts for Countering (PASCC) Report no. 2012 013, Center for Contemporary Conflict, Department of National Security Affairs (Monterrey, CA: US Naval Postgraduate School, 2012), 6.

                                  (39.) Redick, “Politics of Denuclearization,” 98.

                                  (41.) Sheinin, “Nuclear Development,” 42; and Redick, “Politics of Denuclearization,” 322–323.

                                  (42.) Sotomayor, U.S.–Latin American Relations, 10–11; and Redick, “Politics of Denuclearization,” 322–323.

                                  (44.) García-Gorena, Mothers, 15–24, 59.

                                  (45.) Domínguez Martínez, Historia de la Física Nuclear; and Azuela and Talancón, Contracoirriente.

                                  (46.) Hagood, “Bottling Atomic Energy.”

                                  (47.) Sheinin, “Nuclear Development.”

                                  (48.) Gisela Mateos and Edna Suárez-Díaz, “‘We Are Not a Rich Country to Waste Our Resources on Expensive Toys’: Mexico’s Version of Atoms for Peace,” History and Technology 31, no. 3 (2016): 243–258.

                                  (49.) Mateos, Minor, and Sánchez, “Una Modernidad Anunciada.”

                                  (50.) Rentetzi, Trafficking Materials.

                                  (51.) Galison, “Marietta Blau.”