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Being Nuclear

Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade

Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 480
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  • Book Info
    Being Nuclear
    Book Description:

    Uranium from Africa has long been a major source of fuel for nuclear power and atomic weapons, including the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. In 2002, George W. Bush claimed that Saddam Hussein had "sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa" (later specified as the infamous "yellowcake from Niger"). Africa suddenly became notorious as a source of uranium, a component of nuclear weapons. But did that admit Niger, or any of Africa's other uranium-producing countries, to the select society of nuclear states? Does uranium itself count as a nuclear thing? In this book, Gabrielle Hecht lucidly probes the question of what it means for something--a state, an object, an industry, a workplace--to be "nuclear." Hecht shows that questions about being nuclear--a state that she calls "nuclearity"--lie at the heart of today's global nuclear order and the relationships between "developing nations" (often former colonies) and "nuclear powers" (often former colonizers). Nuclearity, she says, is not a straightforward scientific classification but a contested technopolitical one.Hecht follows uranium's path out of Africa and describes the invention of the global uranium market. She then enters African nuclear worlds, focusing on miners and the occupational hazard of radiation exposure. Could a mine be a nuclear workplace if (as in some South African mines) its radiation levels went undetected and unmeasured? With this book, Hecht is the first to put Africa in the nuclear world, and the nuclear world in Africa. Doing so, she remakes our understanding of the nuclear age.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-30144-2
    Subjects: History, Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
    (pp. IX-XIV)
    (pp. XV-XXI)
    (pp. 1-46)

    In late 2002, US President George W. Bush announced that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had “recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” The implication? Iraq planned to build nuclear weapons, and the world must act.

    The scenario seemed plausible. Weapons inspectors had uncovered a clandestine program after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Surely Saddam would try again. Bush and his advisors had been implying this for months, releasing assorted evidence to make the case. US national security advisor Condoleezza Rice insisted, for example, that Iraq had imported aluminum tubes whose only conceivable use was in a nuclear weapons program....


      (pp. 49-54)

      In the 1930s, the Homer Laughlin China Company of West Virginia introduced a popular line of ceramics glazed with a yellow powder that turned orange-red upon firing. Although permanently discontinued in 1973, uranium-glazed Fiesta dishes are still available for purchase on eBay. Were you to drink your daily coffee from a vintage “Fiesta red” cup, your lips would get an annual dose of 400 millirems (mrem) of beta-gamma radiation, your fingers a dose of 1,200 mrem, and your guts another dose from the uranium leachate you’d ingested.¹

      It feels odd to think of dinnerware as nuclear. These objects seem more...

      (pp. 55-78)

      Before the mid 1960s, the idea of “the uranium market” was aspirational, little more than an expression of desire: the desire to sell to any buyer, the desire to buy from any seller, the desire to be free of restrictions while conducting transactions. The desire, in short, to treat uranium like an ordinary, profit-generating commodity.

      The desire needed expressing, because so much blocked its fulfillment.

      The desire for commodification—of uranium, and of other nuclear things—had shaped the formation and development of the IAEA. Defining “source materials,” debating safeguards, dispensing technical assistance….

      These global institutions and arrangements offered corporations...

      (pp. 79-83)

      In 1951, simmering discontent over British encroachment on Iranian sovereignty came to a boil. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company refused to hand over half of its profits to the state, as Aramco had done in Saudi Arabia. After Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and his parliament nationalized the company, the British did their best to block sales of Iranian oil. As internal tensions rose between Mossadegh and his conservative opponents (including the young Shah), Britain appealed to the US for help. The Americans were happy to oblige, ousting Mossadegh in a 1953 coup backed by the CIA.

      The episode laid bare the...

      (pp. 85-106)

      Despite the best efforts of its promoters, uranium from southern Africa refused to stay ordinary. As a point of collision between moral economies—of global nuclearity, of Cold War capitalism, of anti-colonial struggle—it was simply too prominent. When apartheid South Africa became an object of international opprobrium, the politics of place complicated commodification efforts. In the era of imperial collapse, the unabashed colonialism of the South African state grew increasingly anomalous. South African politics of racial exceptionalism became entangled with the global politics of nuclear exceptionalism. Managing these entanglements was a major task for the market devices that served...

      (pp. 107-113)

      In February 1960, France exploded its first atomic bomb in the Algerian Sahara. Emotional renderings in the metropolitan press extolled the renewal of French “radiance.” By becoming the world’s fourth nuclear weapons power, France had secured its place in the new global order. The subtext—never explicit in these glowing reports—was the crumbling empire. Also absent: the test took place during the height of Algeria’s war for independence. Everyone knew about the war, so why belabor the point? Unmentioned, too, because no one could guess its future significance: the explosion occurred just a few hundred kilometers north of the...

      (pp. 115-140)

      Uranium mines require massive capital investment and complex technologies, neither of which were readily within reach for the first postcolonial leaders of Gabon and Niger. The 1960 defense accords with France acknowledged this state of affairs. Allowing France to retain effective control over certain raw materials seemed like a pragmatic arrangement, one whose implications could be deferred pending more pressing matters of governance. So what—if anything—did natural resource sovereignty mean inla Françafrique?

      UN decrees, resolutions, and charters made it possible to invoke international agreements as threats or as sources of legitimacy.⁶ The concrete conundrums of sovereignty, however,...

      (pp. 141-145)

      In February 1979, the newly formed “World Campaign against Military and Nuclear Collaboration with South Africa” hosted a high-profile seminar at the United Nations during which participants described how apartheid transcended its obvious manifestations in racial segregation and violence.¹ Embedded deep in South Africa’s technological infrastructures, the apartheid system stretched beyond that country’s borders, relying on US and European expertise and technology for its maintenance. In World Campaign director Abdul Minty’s pithy formulation, South Africa was the “nuclear Frankenstein” of the West. Only through strict sanctions could the West hope to control—and eventually fell—its monster.² Thus began a...

      (pp. 147-170)

      The likelihood of an apartheid atomic bomb elevated uranium’s position in the struggle for freedom in southern Africa. By forging ties with antinuclear activists, the anti-apartheid movement gained access to a wider set of knowledge, tools, and arguments. By itself, African uranium did not attract much interest from the European anti-nuclear movement, which preferred to set its sights on the high-tech systems closer to home. In highlighting the ore’s role in an illegitimate weapons program, anti-apartheid activists sought to make southern African uranium a more compelling target to anti-nuclear activists and other opposition groups.

      This chapter explores the technopolitical strategies...

      (pp. 171-174)

      At what point does licit trade become black (or gray) marketeering? Illicitness is often in the eye of the beholder. Many commodities—from oil and diamonds to coca and cigarettes—pass in and out of legality as they ricochet through their chains of production and consumption. For regulators, consumers, brokers, industries, states, informal economies, regional accords, and global treaties, some goods may be legitimate under some criteria but not others, licit in one system of exchange yet not in another. “Legal,” “licit,” and “legitimate” aren’t necessarily co-extensive. The first term refers to compliance with laws. The second and third make...


      (pp. 177-182)

      In the rest of the book, I aim to make visible the radiation exposures of African uranium miners by highlighting the moments and mechanisms that rendered them invisible. Let’s start, though, with a quick visit to the Colorado Plateau. The history of uranium mining on the Plateau has been central to anti-colonial and environmental activism, popped up in Congressional testimony and courtrooms, and made up a chapter in the hugemea culpainvestigation conducted by the US Department of Energy during the Clinton administration. It has been filmed, put on CD-ROM, and posted on websites.¹

      The story goes like this....

      (pp. 183-212)

      The link between radon exposure and cancer remained deeply contested for decades as scientists, industry officials, and regulators remained unpersuaded by the evidence that Nazi bureaucrats and Dr. Wilhelm Hueper of the National Cancer Institute had found so convincing. US mine operators, for instance, held that poverty, malnutrition, and the arsenic content of the ore explained the Jáchymov miners’ high mortality and morbidity rates. In the early 1940s, one Belgian scientist insisted that pitchblende miners at Shinkolobwe in the Congo’s Katanga region hadn’t exhibited the slightest sign of lung cancer despite “the inhalation of massive amounts of dust.” In countering...

      (pp. 213-217)

      What did life in Africa mean to a Frenchman in the 1960s? Imagine the rugged male explorer, the civilizing agent, the avatar of a gloriously global nation. In the era of empire, such icons offered ready roles for metropolitan voyagers. But were exploration, civilization, and perpetuation of national glory still viable as empire waned?

      The Commissariat à l’Énergie Atomique thought so. It cultivated a sense of destiny among employees preparing for “overseas” duty, albeit one tempered by postcolonial caution. As the new carrier of French global “radiance,” a nuclear industry largely fueled by African uranium would restore national glory lost...

      (pp. 219-250)

      It was easy to lose sight of nuclear things in Madagascar and Gabon.

      Making nuclear things visible in the first place—at least some things, in some ways, to some people—looked straightforward. Geologists combed the southern Malagasy desert or bushwhacked the eastern Gabonese rainforest, listening for the tantalizing clicks that signaled radioactivity on their Geiger counters. After that, though, practices quickly became more pedestrian: sinking bore holes, conducting chemical tests, painstakingly mapping geological indices. For worthy deposits, operations focused on ordinary aspects of rocks, pits, and underground shafts. The only distinctions that mattered in digging a mine had to...

      (pp. 251-257)

      Mounana residents had an adage to express their frustration over the disappointments of independence: “It’s like South Africa at Mounana: blacks at the bottom and whites on top.” But what would these Gabonese have seen had they actually traveled to apartheid South Africa?

      The history of modern South Africa was profoundly shaped by mining. Diamond mining took off in the 1870s. At the end of the century, the Witwatersrand gold mines pulled migrant labor from all over southern Africa. The rapidly expanding gold industry soon consolidated into a few large mining houses. These created the powerful Transvaal Chamber of Mines...

      (pp. 259-286)

      Nuclearity, as we’ve seen throughout this book, requires work. It comes in different technopolitical registers: geological, metallurgical, technological, managerial, medical. Nuclearity in one register does not automatically transpose into another. South African diplomats abroad claimed that uranium production made their country sufficiently nuclear to qualify for a seat in IAEA governance. But that didn’t mean that uranium extraction counted as nuclear labor in South Africa itself.

      South African radon researchers long insisted that black miners were “unsuitable” research subjects because they were short-term, migrant workers. This justified an exclusive focus on white miners and promoted the apparently self-evident conclusion that...

      (pp. 287-291)

      During their 1980s campaign to block the circulation of Namibian yellowcake, Alun Roberts and other members of the Campaign Against Namibian Uranium Contracts sought to enlist the help of the British peace movement. But as we saw in chapter 5, bombs, missiles, and submarines made more compelling targets than uranium mines—especially mines in distant lands. Although the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament contributed some funds and occasionally mentioned Namibian yellowcake during its rallies, the CANUC movement’s support fell short of what Roberts had hoped for. Uranium mining by itself could not generate outrage to match the protests against the deployment...

      (pp. 293-317)

      From the moment it opened, in 1976, Rössing symbolized the capitalist world’s complicity in maintaining apartheid in southern Africa. Although illegal by United Nations decree, the mine supplied large quantities of uranium for nuclear weapons and power plants in Europe, Asia, and the US. For the liberation struggle—especially the nationalist South West Africa People’s Organization—opposing Rössing’s operations offered a means of recruiting allies from the anti-nuclear and anti-apartheid movements outside Namibia. Activists kept the mine in the international spotlight via hearings, publications, and demonstrations, repeatedly invoking apartheid conditions and exposing the transnational web of capital and technology that...

    (pp. 319-340)

    Uranium was not born nuclear. It was not born nuclear in the US or Europe, where ceramic and glass manufacturers first used it as a coloring agent. Nor in Madagascar, where villagers in the Androy used it as weights for fishing lines and ammunition for slingshots. Nor in South Africa, where gold mine operators initially discarded it as waste. Used to color ceramics in the US, fashioned into weights for fishing lines in Madagascar, and discarded from South African gold mines as waste, uranium began its life among humans as a metal of marginal value. Even in the bedrock of...

    (pp. 341-350)
    (pp. 351-352)
  11. NOTES
    (pp. 353-406)
    (pp. 407-442)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 443-452)