Hecht, Being Nuclear

Reviewed by Jacob Darwin Hamblin in Isis 104:1 (2013), 183-184.

Gabrielle Hecht. Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade. xx + 451 pp., illus., bibl., index. Cambridge, Mass./London: MIT Press, 2012. $29.95 (cloth).

In Being Nuclear, Gabrielle Hecht begins by recalling how the 2003 Iraq war was predicated in part on allegations that Saddam Hussein had tried to procure uranium from Africa. This a useful entry point for thinking about how to assign meaning to uranium. Ever since the first atomic bombs used uranium from the Congo, African uranium has played a role in world affairs, whether visible or not. Yet uranium’s status as a nuclear material, with all its connotations, has ebbed and flowed. Was uranium an ordinary commodity, traded freely and fetching a market price, or was it exceptional, with guaranteed contracts to certain states? More important, was uranium itself to be feared, either as fuel for a weapon or as dust breathed into a miner’s lungs?

How does uranium become a nuclear thing? This is the question at the heart of Hecht’s thoughtful book on the uranium trade in Africa. Readers will learn the often-dizzying range of mechanisms by which this status has been constructed and deconstructed for political and economic purposes. The book is destined to make a cynic of any serious reader, but be forewarned that it may go further, undermining any semblance of confidence in nonproliferation safeguards and radiation health science.

To develop her central question, Hecht has invented a concept: “nuclearity.” Uranium’s nuclearity varied across time and space. How could it be that in Namibia, the Rössing uranium mine became emblematic of the struggle against the South African apartheid regime, yet in Madagascar, some people thought their dosimeters just measured sickness, with no idea that their mines were connected to the nuclear world? For Hecht, being nuclear never was a strictly technical issue. Instead, it was technopolitical. She used this term in her previous book, The Radiance of France (MIT, 1998), in the sense of French bureaucrats making choices about nuclear reactor technology to enact political goals. Here she uses the term broadly, as a way of thinking about how other kinds of devices—definitions, market controls, standards, treaties, and of course scientific knowledge—were deployed for interested purposes.

The book is divided into two main sections, one dealing with the uranium market and the other with health effects on Africans. Uranium suppliers attempted to set prices and strike trade deals based on whether uranium was an ordinary commodity (banal) or something special because of its role in the nuclear world (exceptional). The distinction mattered. Albert-Bernard Bongo of Gabon, for example, wanted to treat uranium like an ordinary commodity, inspired by the price-fixing power of OPEC countries. Hamani Diori of Niger saw more profit in emphasizing how special uranium was, massaging French pride in their nuclear independence. One leader wanted his uranium to be banal, and the other wanted it to be exceptional.

Hecht reveals the widespread complicity in masking uranium’s origins by using a two-step export system, cleansing uranium of its provenance by sending it first to be processed in another country. One might expect such “flag swaps” to be practiced only in illegal transactions, but they were more widespread than that, especially for governments not wishing to advertise that their uranium really originated in Namibian mines controlled by apartheid South Africa. Using archival evidence, Hecht demonstrates that even when responsible bureaucrats detected this, they were unable to stop it.

The second half of the book focuses on the invisibility of radiation effects in mines. The “nuclearity” of mines was uneven (Hecht uses the word “lumpy”). Sometimes workers received dosimeters, other times not. Data about exposure in Europe were based on radon, dust, and gamma rays, whereas in African mines they might have been based only on gamma-ray exposure. Generalizations about health effects neglected vast areas, as when discussions of health effects in “metropolitan France” rendered the mines in French-held Madagascar invisible. Even within individual mines, data often came from white workers in well-ventilated areas, ignoring black workers deeper in the mines.

Despite the book’s many merits, some readers may find Hecht’s linguistic apparatus distracting at times. In a book that does a service by casting aside the political obfuscations of the past, Hecht sometimes clouds her own story by framing it firmly in her own vocabulary of nuclearity, technopolitics, exceptionalism, and banality. Still, her approach has the benefit of keeping the reader’s mind affixed to the political significance of ostensibly neutral “technical” issues.

Hecht’s research is admirably wide ranging, drawing not just on archival materials but also on oral history interviews conducted during her visits to Africa. She is critical of French archives, which come across as uncooperative and sluggish. Scholars of the era owe Gabrielle Hecht an enormous debt for seeking out these scattered sources and emerging with a book that makes visible the stories that too often are left buried in the rocks.

Jacob Darwin Hamblin

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