The hidden history of African uranium and what it means—for a state, an object, an industry, a workplace—to be “nuclear.”
Uranium from Africa has long been a major source of fuel for nuclear power and atomic weapons, including the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. In 2003, after the infamous “yellow cake 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). Hecht 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. By doing so, she remakes our understanding of the nuclear age.
Racism, deceit, and fraught politics taint one corner of the nuclear industry in this tendentious study. University of Michigan history professor Hecht (The Radiance of France: Nuclear Power and National Identity After World War II) examines postwar uranium mining in Madagascar, Gabon, Niger, and apartheid-ruled South Africa and Namibia an enterprise she finds steeped in power plays and exploitation. Western countries, especially France and Britain, sought to monopolize Africa's uranium reserves for their own weapons and energy programs; mining companies skimped on radiation-protection measures for black workers and tried to build an unrestricted international trade in yellowcake; antiapartheid movements made common cause with Western antinuclear campaigners in denouncing uranium mines, then embraced them after coming to power. The author interprets all this by invoking the fickle concept of "nuclearity," by which she fuzzily means a rhetorical strategy that veers between "nuclear exceptionalism" and "banalization" depending on whether interested parties wanted to play up uranium's importance to assert control or downplay its risks to avoid regulation. Her approach is heavy on Foucauldian cultural theorizing, but sketchy and occasionally misleading on the factual basics of crucial things like the health risks of radiation, a topic that pervades the second half of the book. Hecht's palpable scorn for all things nuclear colors and clouds her assessment of her subject. Photos.