In the wake of World War II, which had caused much devastation and terror throughout the world, the country of Argentina was seeking to promote industrial and economic growth and independence, looking to propel itself forward into a great world power. The resident dictator at the time, President Juan Perón, was on the lookout for some of the many scientists who had been scattered by the war in order to launch new projects that could help the nation reach its goals, and it just so happened that many Austrian and German scientists had gone into hiding in Argentina and other areas of South America right after the war, along with other Nazi big shots such as the infamous Adolf Eichmann and and Josef Mengele. One of these wayward scientists was a Czechoslovakia born Austrian by the name of Ronald Richter, who had helped the Nazis develop particle accelerators and had long spouted talk of a grand discovery he had made, claiming that he had uncovered the secret to nuclear fusion energy, seen as the key to limitless cheap energy. And so would begin the tale of the erection of an elaborate island facility very much like an evil villain lair from fiction, complete with henchmen, elaborate facilities, and mad scientists.
Richter had arrived in Argentina along with a group of other German scientists and engineers who were trickling out of Europe under false passports in 1947 and 1948, and many of them had been actively welcomed with open arms by the Argentine government, given facilities, resources, and sanctuary to continue their work for the good of Argentina. Richter himself arrived in the country in August of 1948, under the alias “Dr. Pedro Matthies,” and immediately began peddling his ambitious idea of nuclear fusion, which was then and still is a pipe dream that had never been achieved. This was enough to ensure that he was soon introduced to Perón that same year by a German Aeronautical engineer by the name of Kurt Tank, who had been a major aircraft designer for the Nazis.
During this meeting, Richter enthusiastically elaborated at length about his amazing discoveries for cheap, limitless energy, and stressed that it would only require not uranium, but only the most basic and readily available of required materials to get the whole thing started, including hydrogen, lithium, deuterium and heavy water, and by the time he was done with his spiel the Argentine dictator was sold on the idea. In fact, Richter was completely, woefully unqualified to make such grand claims, but no one knew that, and he was so convincing that the Argentine government completely set him up for business. In 1949 he was given basically a whole island, the quaint and remote Huemul Island located in the picturesque Nahuel Huapi Lake, off the shore of San Carlos de Bariloche, to do with as he pleased. Perón then basically gave Richter a blank check to do whatever he wanted in order to create their fusion device, called the “Thermotron.”
Thus was Project Huemul, or Proyecto Huemul born, and the government threw money at it constantly so that no expense at all was spared. A sprawling compound, complete with an absurdly massive concrete bunker measuring 40 feet high and several other reactors were built, to the tune of an estimated $300 million dollars, and all of it employing numerous fugitive scientists and utilizing the most cutting edge, expensive equipment money could buy, such as a full blown particle accelerator, the only one known to exist in South America at the time. Through this all, the highly secretive installation was all patrolled by henchmen like something straight out of a James Bond film. The site was complete in 1951, and here the team worked in secrecy on their mysterious project, hidden out in the thick jungles of the island away from prying eyes, set on their goal of basically creating a miniature sun that would hypothetically provide unlimited energy and which had long been a dream of physicists everywhere. There were setbacks at the time, such as at one point it was found that the main reactor had been improperly designed, forcing it to be torn down and rebuilt, and the whole project was a money black hole, yet the funds kept coming in even in the absence of any tangible results.
It seems almost absurd that so many resources and so much cash should be pumped into this project, but through it all Richter kept promising results, even without publishing anything on how it was all actually supposed to work and under the withering eye of a very skeptical scientific community looking to distance itself from him. There were people and reporters sent from outside sources to try and investigate what Richter was doing out there, but all were all turned away by his goons and denied access. In the meantime, there was no information at all as to what they were up to out there on that island, and the larger scientific community held a collection of raised eyebrows. Three years after the money hungry project had first gotten off the ground, Richter would step forward with the “results” everyone had spent so much time and money waiting for, when it was announced that real fusion had been achieved. Richter would come out seemingly victorious, publicly announcing that he had achieved his goal and that the day when energy would be “sold in packages the size of a milk bottles” was near at hand. The news was splashed over headlines worldwide, and there were many who were hopeful that a new era of plentiful, cheap energy for everyone was upon us.
Of course it was also met with a highly skeptical audience, and there were numerous red flags surrounding the amazing development. Not only was the equipment used to measure the event essentially a Geiger counter, but a technician at the site itself anonymously claimed that it was all due to an error when setting up the experiment, and there was also the rather damning fact that Richter would not allow a re-run of the experiment, nor any peer reviewed corroboration, and he was very evasive on the methods used to achieve this groundbreaking discovery. Through all of this, he had already ordered the reactor in question to be disassembled and rebuilt with a new, more advanced version, so the conditions of the event could not possibly be recreated. Unfortunately for Richter, the increasingly suspicious President Juan Perón sent his own team in to investigate the claims, and they would find that there was no evidence at all that the team had actually achieved fusion, and indeed they found clues that Richter had exaggerated result by placing loudspeakers in the area to increase the temperature using acoustic waves and even that that many of the instruments were not even connected. It looked very much the part of a straight up fraud.
This was all enough to cause the Argentine government to pull the plug on the project, and in 1952 it was totally disbanded. Richter would be arrested and imprisoned on charges of contempt of Congress, while in the meantime Perón was overthrown in 1955. Richter would be released and apparently travel around the world before returning to Argentina to die in 1991. Even so, there were a multitude of other fusion reactor projects launched off the back of this scam, and funding or such fusion projects was actually increased during this time. Somewhat tellingly, we still don’t have nuclear fusion, and it is just as much a holy grail of energy production as it always has been.
In modern times, Huemul Island still holds the ruins of this facility, and tours by boat are offered to go poke around the remnants of one of history’s greatest scientific frauds. We are left to wonder whether Richter was a madman, charlatan, and scam artist, or whether he really was on to something. Was he an impostor or was he perhaps a misunderstood genius who was prematurely shut down? Physicist Edward Teller summed it up nicely when he said “Reading one line [of Richter’s] one has to think he’s a genius. Reading the next line, one realizes he’s crazy.” Whether he really had anything up his sleeve or not, the story of Ronald Richter and his ominous island fortress is pretty wild, and will go down into the annals of stories of great historical oddities.