restricted access Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade by Gabrielle Hecht (review)
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Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade. By Gabrielle Hecht. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012. Pp. xiv+452. $29.95.

What makes something nuclear? What marks the boundaries of the nuclear world? These foundational questions are rarely, if ever, asked by nuclear scholars. In her response, Gabrielle Hecht, a prizewinning historian of the French nuclear program, offers a sweeping view of an interconnected world that joins mines, workers, and radiation with colonialism, transnational agencies, and geopolitics. Taken by themselves, few of these categories are particularly novel; by taking them together, this book helps change permanently how we think of nuclear topics.

Hecht’s vision of the nuclear world stands in sharp opposition to nuclear studies as conventionally understood. This is not the overdetermined space of covert proliferators, power “too cheap to meter,” and mystical pronouncements that have helped make nuclear objects and people among the most exceptional objects of the twentieth century. By exposing the disciplining effects of what she calls “nuclearity,” this book is able to unsettle well-worn cultures of nuclear behavior and scholarship. Nuclearity is an unstable and contested category that sanctions (in both senses) some “nation(s), program(s), technolog(ies), material(s), and workplace(s)” as properly nuclear while preventing others from being included in the same field. Nuclearity is not an attribute uniquely aligned with a fixed set of nuclear things as much as “a property distributed among things” that changes with time and place (p. 14; emphasis in original).

The greatest absence from the nuclear world, Hecht argues, is Africa. Long the source of most of the world’s uranium, a key ingredient of nuclear power, Africa’s uranium suppliers have only rarely been seen as part of the nuclear world, with the notable exception of South Africa. It is only at political-critical moments, as when George W. Bush’s administration claimed that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger, that this veil is pulled aside to acknowledge an African presence in the nuclear commodity chain. And even this was only momentary: the story soon morphed into Beltway jousting and eventually a movie about a former U.S. ambassador and his CIA-employed wife. Hecht’s book is devoted to redressing Africa’s absence from nuclear histories, making, ironically, Africa nuclear.

The book is divided into two parts: the first locates nuclear power within a global political economy—“Proliferating Markets”—while the second takes on the task of exploring “Nuclear Work,” a historical and ethnographic account of mines, labor, exclusion, and sickness in the uranium zones of Madagascar, Gabon, South Africa, and Namibia. Together, they work to give entirely new meanings to nuclear power, introducing new actors, archives, networks, spaces, and techniques, while also removing [End Page 996] the nuclear object from its familiar location within state-centered regimes of secrecy and control.

The political-economy story makes a mockery of familiar tropes of nuclear exceptionalism. In order to become a “normal” commodity in world markets, suppliers of nuclear ores had to make their substance banal. Their efforts to do so exposed the limits of nuclear power as a commercial commodity; uranium, we find, would be unable entirely to free itself of its technopolitical entanglements and meanings. The unequal contest between “free” trade and national sovereignty, a hallmark of cold war economic relations, would be as true for nuclear fuel as for other primary products, from rubber to copper. France and Great Britain would demand a greater freedom to trade—a right not offered to nuclear suppliers in Africa, who, in turn, would seek to reinforce the idea of uranium as an exceptional material to acquire rents in excess of market values.

The shifting boundary between the exceptional and the banal is equally visible in the uranium mines, the difference being that becoming banal also meant an extremely hazardous workplace for black miners. Given the established dangers of radon poisoning and prolonged exposure to radioactive ores, mining corporations would seek to remove uranium mines from the nuclear world in order to evade higher standards of worker protection and safety. Hence, on the one hand, South Africa would seek to be identified as a nuclear country at the...