Gabrielle Hecht – Being Nuclear

31 August, 2021 - examPrep

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. 




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