Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade

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Uranium from Africa has long been a major source of fuel for nuclear power and atomic weapons, including the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. In 2002, George W. Bush claimed that Saddam Hussein had "sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa" (later specified as the infamous "yellowcake from Niger"). Africa suddenly became notorious as a source of uranium, a component of nuclear weapons. But did that admit Niger, or any of Africa's other uranium-producing countries, to the select society of nuclear states? Does uranium itself count as a nuclear thing? In this book, Gabrielle Hecht lucidly probes the question of what it means for something--a state, an object, an industry, a workplace--to be "nuclear."

Hecht shows that questions about being nuclear--a state that she calls "nuclearity"--lie at the heart of today's global nuclear order and the relationships between "developing nations" (often former colonies) and "nuclear powers" (often former colonizers). Nuclearity, she says, is not a straightforward scientific classification but a contested technopolitical

Hecht follows uranium's path out of Africa and describes the invention of the global uranium market. She then enters African nuclear worlds,
focusing on miners and the occupational hazard of radiation exposure. Could a mine be a nuclear workplace if (as in some South African mines) its radiation levels went undetected and unmeasured? With this book, Hecht is the first to put Africa in the nuclear world, and the nuclear world in Africa. Doing so, she remakes our understanding of the nuclear age.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Racism, deceit, and fraught politics taint one corner of the nuclear industry in this tendentious study. University of Michigan history professor Hecht (The Radiance of France: Nuclear Power and National Identity After World War II) examines postwar uranium mining in Madagascar, Gabon, Niger, and apartheid-ruled South Africa and Namibia—an enterprise she finds steeped in power plays and exploitation. Western countries, especially France and Britain, sought to monopolize Africa’s uranium reserves for their own weapons and energy programs; mining companies skimped on radiation-protection measures for black workers and tried to build an unrestricted international trade in yellowcake; antiapartheid movements made common cause with Western antinuclear campaigners in denouncing uranium mines, then embraced them after coming to power. The author interprets all this by invoking the fickle concept of “nuclearity,” by which she fuzzily means a rhetorical strategy that veers between “nuclear exceptionalism” and “banalization” depending on whether interested parties wanted to play up uranium’s importance to assert control or downplay its risks to avoid regulation. Her approach is heavy on Foucauldian cultural theorizing, but sketchy and occasionally misleading on the factual basics of crucial things like the health risks of radiation, a topic that pervades the second half of the book. Hecht’s palpable scorn for all things nuclear colors—and clouds—her assessment of her subject. Photos. (Mar.)
From the Publisher

"Hecht has written the first history of nuclear Africa which, given the importance of the subject and the obstacles she faced, is a major achievement." -- Jock
, Journal of African History

The MIT Press

Jock McCulloch
Hecht has written the first history of nuclear Africa which, given the importance of the subject and the obstacles she faced, is a major achievement.
The British Journal for the History of Science - Jayita Sarkar
Not only does the book stand out as one of the most comprehensive attempts to study the history of uranium mining in Africa, it also caters to an expansive academic audience — from historians of science and technology and sociologists and anthropologists of science, to those taking a broader interest in labour rights, public health issues and mining corporations.
Journal of Modern History
Being Nuclear has very important things to say about the legacies of empire. Hecht persuasively shows how global nuclear agencies reproduced colonial logics and inequalities... It seems destined to become essential reading for those interested in uranium and Africa, as well as in issues of global nuclearity.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780262017268
  • Publisher: MIT Press
  • Publication date: 3/2/2012
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 1,125,971
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Gabrielle Hecht is Professor of History at the University of Michigan.
She is the author of The Radiance of France: Nuclear Power and National Identity after World War II and editor of Entangled Geographies:
Empire and Technopolitics in the Global Cold War
, both published by the MIT Press.

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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Acronyms and Abbreviations xv

I Introduction: The Power of Nuclear Things 1

1 Proliferating Markets

Market Aversions 49

2 Imperial Projections and Market Devices 55

Resource Sovereignty 79

3 Colonial Enrichment 85

La Françafrique 107

4 The Price of Sovereignty 115

Nuclear Frankenstein 141

5 In the Shadows of the Market 147

Borderlands 171

II Nuclear Work

Nuclear Desertions 177

6 A History of Invisibility 183

Expatriates, Ethnology, and Ethnicity 213

7 Nuclearity at Work 219

Migrant Miners 251

8 Invisible Exposures 259

Against Uranium 287

9 Hopes for the Irradiated Body 293

10 Conclusion: Uranium in Africa 319

Appendix: Primary Sources and the (In)Visibilities of History 341

Publication History 351

Notes 353

Bibliography 407

Index 443

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