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Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona
Institut d'Història de la Ciència

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Gisela Mateos González
Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México

Selling the Land of  Atomic  Peace  and  Plenty’:  Nuclear  Technical  Assistance  for  Mexico (1954‐1968)

11:30 hores - Sala de seminaris de l’iHC 



Technical assistance in the nuclear field was an American invention. A few months after the Atoms for Peace initiative was formally announced by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953, federal and private agencies in the United States, including the Division of International Affairs of the US Atomic Energy Commission (USAEC), and the Fund for Peaceful Atomic Development A. C., devised a coordinated set of tactics to hook what they categorized as less-developed countries into what we call a nuclear development ladder: the expected highway-or road! – that went from the peaceful applications of radioisotopes in medicine, agriculture, and industry, to the training of experts around research nuclear reactors, all the way up to the construction of nuclear power reactors and other facilities for the pacific uses of atomic energy. In this projected future, whose teleology was the basic tenet that societies should go through progressive stages of economic and social achievements, power reactors would provide the future source of energy needed for industrialization and modernization, especially in those countries devoid of alternative energetic sources. 

The IAEA technical assistance program started operations in 1958. The new Agency took up most of the tactics previously used by the USAEC, including the implementation of ‘fact-finding’ or surveying missions sent to recipient countries, and the delivery of basic courses on radioisotope applications, requiring basic or mundane instrumentation and facilities. Very soon, however, it became obvious to the Agency’s officials that implementing nuclear technologies, even the most basic ones, paradoxically required a certain amount of previous technical and scientific knowledge. Nuclear power was not for everyone, but for the most developed members of the nuclear club. Even access to radioisotope applications required a minimum of resources to host the training team and the moving apparatuses, but equally important it required at least a few local technicians or scientists. This fact, that nuclear technical assistance required a number of already skilled experts, gave shape to the particularities of programs provided by the IAEA.

Between 1960 and 1968, requests for the IAEA’s technical assistance funds and experts by the Mexican government included topics as varied as uranium ore prospecting, agricultural and industrial uses of radioisotopes, radiochemistry, theoretical physics, and radiobiology and genetics. Each of these areas had its own individual history within the country’s incipient scientific and technical apparatus, marked by different stages of professionalization and varying amounts of financial and overall support. Despite the lack of an explicit mention of development in most requests, the configuration and implementation of the IAEA’s early technical assistance programs offers a window to historicize this concept as involved in specific historical contexts, and regarding the new nuclear technologies of the postwar period. 

In tris talk I will  look at the defining decade that goes from the organization of the Agency’s first Preliminary Assistance Mission to Latin America (1958), to the set-in motion of the first research reactor at the Salazar Nuclear Center inaugurated in 1968 to centralize the previously scattered laboratories and working groups of the Comisión Nacional de Energía Nuclear (CNEN, created 1956), in the vicinity of Mexico City. By focusing on individual nuclear technical assistance projects requested by Mexico in the context of the IAEA’s first decade, I aim to disentangle the abstract discourse of development and planning, from technical assistance understood as the movement – and the obstacles to movement – of standardized practices, experts, technologies and materials.

Gisela Mateos, doctora por la Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona, es investigadora en la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México en el Programa de Historia de la Ciencia del Centro de Investigaciones Interdisciplinarias en Ciencias y Humanidades. Sus líneas de investigación son la historia de la ciencia en América Latina, particularmente en el periodo de 1950-1975. En la última década ha colaborado con su colega la Dra. Edna Suárez-Díaz y han escrito sobre la historia de la ciencia en México durante la guerra fría. Se han centrado en los programas de asistencia técnica para el desarrollo en América Latina. Actualmente están escribiendo un libro en torno a la relación entre desarrollo, asistencia técnica y las aplicaciones de la energía atómica en México. Desde 2021 se encuentra investigando la manera en la que la asistencia técnica movió a las prácticas médicas entre los países socialistas y los llamados países del Tercer Mundo.

Entre sus últimas publicaciones se encuentran: Mateos, Gisela y Edna Suárez Díaz(2021) ‘The Door to the Promised Land of Atomic Peace and Plenty’: Mexican Students and the Phoenix Memorial Project”. Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences. 51, no.2; Mateos, Gisela y Edna Suárez Díaz (2020) “Creating the need in Mexico: the IAEA’s technical assistance programs for less developed countries (1958-68)” History and Technology. 36, no. 3 y 4. ; Mateos, Gisela y Edna Suárez-Díaz (2020). “‘Development interventions: science, technology and technical assistance.” History and Technology.