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Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade by Gabrielle Hecht (review)
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Reviewed by
Hecht, Gabrielle. Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2012. xx + 451 pp. Maps. Illustrations. Photographs. Bibliography. Index. $29.95. Cloth.

In this book, Gabrielle Hecht questions what it means to be nuclear, coining and problematizing the technopolitical phenomenon of nuclearity. She argues that it is a relational, contested category; things that are nuclear for one person in one place and one time may not be in a different context. To demonstrate the plasticity of nuclearity, she divides the book into two parts: the first, an extended exposé of the political economy of uranium, which unveils the dubious history of uranium prices and their intimate relationship to colonial (and postcolonial) politics; the second, a treatise on radiation exposure among uranium workers. The sites for her study are a collection of African states (Niger, Gabon, Madagascar, South Africa, and Namibia), although many of the political and economic forces playing roles are international in scope (e.g., France, the United States, the IAEA, a smattering of transnational businesses, and other primary players in the nuclear order).

In one sense, the reader is getting two books for the price of one: although there are threads woven throughout the text, either half could probably stand on its own as a separate tome. Other pieces can seem fragmented, although only at first glance; most chapters are preceded by brief introductions that seem to be ancillary vignettes but in practice end up serving well to connect each chapter to the overall narrative. The appendix on sources is probably destined (and deservedly so) to be assigned in methodology courses to budding Africanists and historians as a robust defense of oral interviews as well as a cautionary note on document fetishism.

The technopolitical theme of nuclearity does ultimately serve to hold it all together; the discursive battle over whether uranium and its associated activities are nuclear or not and whether, if they are nuclear, they need to be treated differently, rages throughout the book. Discursive coalitions form and splinter continuously, although institutionalization of the price and nuclearity of uranium through practices of regulation and measurement does ultimately move slowly forward in fits and starts.

In the political economy chapters, the battle is between those who seek to make uranium a commoditized product no different from (supposedly also homogenous) corn or oil and those who could gain from maintaining its uniqueness, although the players shift rapidly and frequently between camps depending on their position. Producers, first the colonial powers and then the regimes that succeed them, are caught between the desire to demand higher prices through emphasizing the uniqueness of their product, whether through nuclearity or another form of specialization such as branding, and the need to keep costs low through denying or minimizing the problematic uses of uranium in weapons or power plants (although some actors attempt to claim a higher price through no-questions-asked policies) or the damage that is done to workers in the process of mining, milling, and refining. Even the price of uranium itself is problematized; the story of the birth and evolution of somewhat absurd standardized “prices” by independent companies is an important reminder that finance itself is often a fiction. The view here of political economy is much broader than contestation over prices, extending to South Africa’s position as an increasingly marginalized state and its attempt to remain connected to the international order through its special advanced nuclear status in a continent that otherwise supposedly lacks nuclearity.

In the health-centered chapters, the macropolitical view from above is swapped for a much closer lens on the micropolitics of radiation exposure. Here the contestation includes a number of additional players and different dynamics, with expert knowledge diffusing both to and from the colonial powers. The supposed lack of radon in South African mines early on becomes a weapon in the battle against regulation of the same in the West; but later on, the internationalization of radiation exposure standards (combined with the collapse of the apartheid regime) ultimately forces South African mines to improve their working conditions. By moving to the micro-level of analysis, nuclearity is demonstrated to vary depending on...