In Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade, Gabrielle Hecht explores the economic, political, and technoscientific components of uranium reaction, enrichment, transportation, processing, and extraction in the African context. Her story takes her through mines, processing facilities, international public health and aid organizations, regulatory agencies, and trade exchange clearinghouses. Her exploration of the uranium industry in various African nations is fueled by the ontological issue of nuclearity, a technopolitical concept of her own design. Nuclearity “shifts in time and space. Its parameters depend on history and geography, science and technology, bodies and politics, radiation and race, states and capitalism. Nuclearity is not so much an essential property of things as it is a property distributed among things.” To clarify, to designate something as nuclear is not simply to declare it radioactive. Radioactivity is a static natural phenomenon: a subterranean uranium concentration can be radioactive without achieving nuclearity by never coming into contact with human sociotechnical systems or actors. Conversely, certain institutions and political or commercial organizations can possess nuclearity (while obviously not being radioactive). Hecht delineates this concept by detailing the banalizing commodification of uranium through the interplay of exchange marketplaces, nationstates, multinational corporations, and neo-colonial parastatal apparatuses. But nuclearity is not merely a characteristic impersonal systemic actors and actions, but also of embodied individuals. Part II explores the technopolitical implications of nuclearity for the individual in terms of public health, labor rights, and struggles between invisibility and perceptibility.
Since I read William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis last week, I read Hecht’s first chapter fully attentive to the importance and peculiarities of commodification. As with Cronon’s wheat, lumber, and meat, Hecht’s uranium underwent a similar process of standardization, abstraction, and disassociation between point of consumption and point of production through Michel Callon’s market devices: quantification of supply, reserve, demand, and projected demand; exchange value, price projecting, and price setting; and the organization and orchestration of a “marketplace” with its concomitant informational and commercial protocols. Keeping Cronon in mind helped me wrap my mind around the significantly more complex process of commodification required for uranium. Whereas Cronon’s story traces out a regional nodal network of resource flows, Hecht’s is international, highly politically regulated, and introduces the idea of banalization. Unlike grain, lumber, and animal tissues, whose human consumption is primordial and inherently mundane, human consumption of uranium existed in the shadow of a sociotechnical imaginary surrounding the nuclear age and bolstered by decades of science-fiction fantasizing, Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” speech, and the hope fertilized by the malaise of two world wars. Its process of commodification demanded that it be extricated from the retarding clutches of state regulation. To be transferred to commercial control, uranium, unlike wheat, for instance, had to undergo a process of banalization — to be de-mythologized before it could become a commodity like any other. This process proved extremely difficult to achieve, despite decades of effort by multinational corporations and commodities brokers.
Hecht gets around to telling us the nuclearity requires work:
Nuclearity requires instruments and data, technological systems and infrastructures, national agencies and international organization, experts and conferences, journals and media exposure. When (and where) nuclearity is densely distributed among these elements, it can offer a means of claiming expertise, compensation, or citizenship. It can serve as a framework for making sense of history, experience, and memory. When (and where) network elements are absent, weak, or poorly connected, nuclearity falters, fades, or disappears altogether, failing to provide a resource for people claiming remediation or treatment.
While banality is advantageous for capitalists seeking to commodify the uranium industry, for uranium miners in Madagascar, Gabon, Namibia, Niger, and other places on the African continent, for environmental activists, and for those anti-nuclear activists petrified by the spectre of human annihilation in the visage of the Janus-faced nuclear age, banalization leads to normalization which leads to invisibility. For these groups and others, nuclearity, as an ontological designation existing in the interrelationships between labor, ecology, commerce, and international security, can be a potent technopolitical device capable of combating the banalization wrought by market devices a la Callon.
- 3 – “This book argues that views from Africa matter not only on their own terms, but also because they transform our perspective on the power of nuclear things. They help us see that nuclearity — a term I introduce to signal how places, objects, or hazards get designated as “nuclear” — has often been contentious. Designating something as nuclear — whether in technoscientific, political, or medical terms — carries high stakes. Fully understanding those stakes requires layering stories that are usually kept distinct: atomic narratives and African ones, histories of markets and histories of health.”
- 13-4 – “But neither workers’ radiation exposures nor their role in the global nuclear power industry was enough to render uranium mining in these countries a “nuclear activity.”// So what things make a state “nuclear,” what makes things “nuclear,” and how do we know? Are the criteria for nuclearity scientific? Technical? Political? Systemic?// These questions are matters of ontology, questions about the things and categories of things that exist. Historical actors often deployed an ontology that appeared fixed, incontrovertible, and transparently empirical, in which essential qualities rigidly separated the nuclear from the non-nuclear. Scholars have generally left this assumption unchallenged. Yet close examination shows that the boundary between the nuclear and the non-nuclear has been frequently contested. The qualities that make a nation, a program, a technology, a material, or a workplace count as “nuclear” remain unstable, even today. There isn’t one nuclear ontology: there are many. My term for the contested terrain of being, this unsettled classificatory scheme, is nuclearity.”
- “Nuclearity, this book argues, is a contested technopolitical category. It shifts in time and space. Its parameters depend on history and geography, science and technology, bodies and politics, radiation and race, states and capitalism. Nuclearity is not so much an essential property of things as it is a property distributed among things.”
- 15 – “Put differently: Radiation is a physical phenomenon that exists independently of how it is detected or politicized. Nuclearity is a technopolitical phenomenon that emerges from political and cultural configurations of technical and scientific things, from the social relations where knowledge is produced.”
- “Equally important, my critique of nuclear exceptionalism is not an accusation of “atomic alarmism.” I do not discount the historical and material significance of nuclear things. Rather, I am to show the consequences of rendering such things exceptional or dismissing them as banal.”
- 35 – ARGUMENTS OF FOUR CHAPTERS OF PART I
- “Uranium was re-invented as a banal commodity. Beginning in the 1960s, mining companies, brokerage firms, geologists, economists, national institutions, and international agencies all sought to facilitate the sale and purchase of yellowcake by turning uranium ore into a commodity governed by economic mechanisms instead of political ones. They created what Michel Callon and other sociologists have called market devices — technologies that generate knowledge and practices which create markets and define their means of commercial exchange. These devices served as tools for de-nuclearizing yellowcake, turning it into a banal commodity subject to the “laws of the market.”
- “De-nuclearizing uranium offered a way to assert power over the terms of its trade. Despite claims to the contrary, politics and economics remained tightly bound in uranium’s market devices. Invoking the “free market” validated a political geography in which imperial powers could continue to dominate former colonies after independence. In Britain and South AFrica, the “free market” took on a valence of moral rectitude in assertions that anti-apartheid and anti-colonial sentiments should not affect the uranium trade. France invoked the “free market” to maintain its privileged access to African uranium when postcolonial Gabonese and Nigerien governments tried to assert sovereignty over natural resources.”
- “For African uranium producers, the shifting boundary between exceptionalism and banality was deeply entangled with the technopolitics of state sovereignty. Precisely because it was profoundly political, the de-nuclearization of uranium was heavily contested. The international anti-apartheid movement and the Namibian liberation struggle invoked the politics and nuclearity of uranium in seeking sanctions against South Africa. In the wake of the 1973 oil crisis, both Niger and Gabon protested French neo-colonial pricing practices that undermined their sovereignty and undervalued their ores. They diverged in their responses, though. Niger emphasized the political value of uranium for French atomic production that would give it more control over uranium sales.”
- 36 – “Transnational entanglements between licit and illicit transactions suffused the technopolitics of African uranium. In the mid 1970s, Niger sold yellowcake to Libya and Pakistan, and Gabon tried to sell some to Iran. these were legitimate transactions by some lights, but not by others. Around the same time, the UN declared Namibian uranium illicit because of South Africa’s continued colonial occupation. To get around accusations of illegitimate commerce, uranium hexafluoride conversion plants in Europe and the US used “certificates of origin” as market devices. These certificates erased the Namibian origin of Rossing yellowcake. The converted product thereby traversed the unstable boundary from illicit to licit thanks to a new nationality that enabled its commercial circulation.”
- “That’s only half of my story, though. The history of uranium is not just about the political economy of yellowcake. It’s also about the people who dug out the rocks. It’s about their labor, their bodies, and the radon they didn’t know existed. To see all this, we need to shift scales and find a new entry point.”
- 44 – ARGUMENTS OF FOUR CHAPTERS OF PART II
- “Standards for radon exposure were fundamentally technopolitical. Radon exposure standards reflected to tensions in reconciling scientific research results, technological systems for measuring and containing radiation, national imperatives, corporate profit, international organizations’ quests for global authority, and shifting power relations between experts, corporations, and labor. Since the 1970s, the International Commission for Radiological Protection (ICRP) has promoted the exposure philosophy of ALARA: As Low As Reasonably Achievable. “As low as” reflects the rough consensus that all radiation exposure has some health effect; “reasonably achievable” represents a concession to economic and political imperatives (and power). Buried deep in the ICRP’s philosophy is the assumption that human lives have different values in different places. As we’ll see, this philosophy has been interpreted as legitimation for spending less to protect workers in poor nations who have remained invisible to experts.”
- “Invisibility was systemic but not always deliberate. Invisibility resulted from what historian Michelle Murphy calls regimes of perceptibility — that is, assemblages of social and technical things that make some hazards and health effects visible but leave others invisible. Such regimes had local, national, and global dimensions that included dosimeters and protective equipment, laboratories for analyzing exposure results, mechanisms for communicating those results, national regulatory systems, manuals, guidelines, and conferences. We’ll see, for example, that radiation experts in apartheid South Africa deliberately avoided studying radon exposures of black miners. In Europe and North America, experts accepted the South African rationales for excluding black workers because these rationales matched standard epidemiological criteria for selecting study populations.”
- “The stakes of inclusion or exclusion were scientific, political, and corporeal. For varying reasons, radon exposures endured by miners in South Africa, Madagascar, and Gabon never became scientific data. This absence shaped biomedical knowledge, allowed for greater exposure, and permitted the absence of occupational health regulation. For example, radiation levels in South African mines remained unregulated for decades, with untold results for miners. Where regulatory principles did exist, actual practices diverged significantly. The standards and rules at Mounana, for instance, weren’t necessarily tied to state supervision and weren’t always implemented.”
- 45 – “Some African miners eventually developed politically usable forms of nuclearity; others didn’t. In none of the countries I examine did uranium miners achieve “biological citizenship,” a term that anthropologist Adriana Petryna uses to describe how Chernobyl victims used their radiation exposures to fashion new identities and lay claim to health care, welfare, and other resources. Some miners, though, came closer than others to making their exposures politically, socially, and medically meaningful. Because uranium production in southern Madagascar ended long before workers could file claims in transnational areas, it never achieved a nuclearity that allowed Malagasy exposures to serve as a resource for postcolonial claims making. Although Gabonese workers remained largely unaware of their specific exposures, they eventually developed their own sources and contexts of knowledge about radiation, which enabled them to seek compensation and remediation after the mines closed. For their part, Namibian uranium workers used political alliances formed during the liberation struggle to develop a sophisticated sense of nuclear exceptionalism and its political possibilities.”
- 56 – “‘The uranium market,’ however, did not exist prior to this knowledge-making. Reserves, forecasts, and prices served as technologies for creating the market. I argue that the workings of this market were shaped — not “discovered” — by these devices.// This distinction is crucial, because market devices mapped moral and technopolitical geographies of trade in which “global” mean “capitalist,” “the West” included Japan and South Africa, and colonial relations persisted in the technologies of production and the infrastructures of exchange.”
- 57 – “Making uranium banal involved distinguishing between “economic” and “political” forces. Placing “political” factors outside “the market” turned nuclear proliferation, government regulation, anti-nuclear activism, postcolonial natural resource sovereignty, the struggle against apartheid, and occupational health legislation into exogenous forces whose irksome presence inappropriately impeded the flow of ore and profits. Such political displacements were hardly unique to the uranium industry, of course. Industry leaders were skilled in the strategic displacement of politics . . ..”
- MARKET TECHNOLOGIES
- 61 – Mapping Reserves
- 66 – Price
- 68 – “Outside the US, the largest uranium producers had little reason to relinquish control over information about uranium prices, let alone over the prices themselves. To them a “free” market meant, above all, freedom from US dominance. And by the early 1970s they had concluded that the best way to achieve freedom was by making their own markets.”
- Funny that for nations and corporations outside the US, a “free” market meant free from US control, but for the US and its corporations, it meant subordination to the US global economy
- 320 – NUCLEARITY REQUIRES WORK – “Nuclearity requires instruments and data, technological systems and infrastructures, national agencies and international organization, experts and conferences, journals and media exposure. When (and where) nuclearity is densely distributed among these elements, it can offer a means of claiming expertise, compensation, or citizenship. It can serve as a framework for making sense of history, experience, and memory. When (and where) network elements are absent, weak, or poorly connected, nuclearity falters, fades, or disappears altogether, failing to provide a resource for people claiming remediation or treatment.”