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Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade by Gabrielle Hecht (review)
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This magnificent opus, both impressive and stimulating, grew out of the author’s long engagement with the topic. Her previous book, which focused on the history of France’s nuclear industry, has attracted many readers from the STS community and beyond. Being Nuclear, the recipient of an award from the American Historical Association, is based on a huge compilation of primary documents and oral testimonies, some of which were collected fourteen years ago. If you love ethnologists’ accounts of their fieldwork in jungles and remote islands, I suggest you start with the appendix. It traces Hecht’s path from Madagascar to Gabon, Niger, Namibia, and South Africa as she was sometimes suspected of spying and refused access to “national security” records, and in other places handed the key to a room full of documents detailing a state’s industrial secrets.

This study takes STS in a new theoretical direction, applied here to Africa’s nuclear industry but applicable to many industries the world over. At first glance, the structure of the book suggests the classical Marxian division between capital and labor. Part 1, entitled “Proliferating Markets,” presents the development of the global uranium market, while part 2, “Nuclear Work,” is devoted to the social invisibility of the occupational hazards faced by African uranium workers. But the book is not a simplistic charge sheet, indicting capital for cynically exploiting labor. Through the concepts of technopolitics and entangled geographies introduced in her previous works, Hecht rethinks the very meaning of the terms world market and occupational hazards.

To be or not to be nuclear, that is the question at the heart of the book. This ontological challenge led the author to forge a neologism: nuclearity. As she posits, the application of the label “nuclear” depends on national boundaries and the power relationships among various players (state, industry, and so on), hence several “regimes of nuclearity.” In the global order issued by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1957, a nation with uranium mines and no other nuclear activities qualified for IAEA leadership. But by 1972 the agency had excluded uranium mines and mills from what it called “principal nuclear facilities.” This decision excluded Gabon, Niger, and Namibia (among others) from holding leadership roles.

In the 1950s and 1960s, African nations struggled to free themselves from economic dependence on their former colonial masters. Niger, Gabon, and Namibia happened to hold important reserves of uranium. Whereas the first two tangled with France over their right to contract refinement and sale of the valuable element, Namibia was struggling against South Africa’s apartheid regime. As Hecht argues, these countries had to strike a balance between seeing uranium as a unique material and a tendency to view it as just another commodity—what Hecht calls exceptionalism and market banality. Was uranium distinct from other postcolonial commodities (gold, oil, cacao, coffee, and so on) because of its terrifying use in bombs, or was it simply a means to produce electricity? During the Cold War, both identities had to be acknowledged. We can now see that with the triumph of liberal democracies and the free market, the peaceful conceptualization of uranium meant greater benefits for postcolonial regimes. Viewed strictly in terms of economic utility, competition among several uranium buyers—including Japan, which was always charged the highest prices—helped states reduce their dependence on former colonies.

In chapter 4, Hecht compares the experiences of Niger and Gabon to illustrate the paths of exceptionalism and market banality, respectively. Niger’s first president, Hamani Diori, bet on the state’s exceptionalism only to be overthrown by a military coup in 1974, perhaps with the blessing of France’s intelligence service. Gabon’s Omar Bongo, who bet on market banality and opened the country’s significant oil reserves to the global market, encountered no significant challenges while serving as president from 1967 to his death in 2009. Incidentally, Niger’s uranium reserves are located a few hundred kilometers east of the border with Mali, a troubled state embroiled in a conflict to which France has sent troops; considering the prospects of French companies in the area, this may be another indicator of the postcolonial economic entanglements addressed by Hecht. Meanwhile...


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