Nuclear Energy

Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade, Gabrielle Hecht

            Gabrielle Hecht’s unconventional approach to a history of the global uranium trade — centered around a traditionally forgotten player, Africa — offers new insight into the effects of the post-World War II technopolitical atmosphere. Hecht introduces the term “nuclearity” to describe the degree of association of various places and things with “nuclear exceptionalism,” a category that placed entities in a position in which they would be regulated according to their perceived risks as nuclear things. The nuclearity of different places and things was renegotiated in various places and times, Hecht argues, often due to changing political and technological climates. The author traces the development of the nuclear market, an action made possible by politically motivated nations’ reclassifying uranium as a marketable commodity not associated with its nuclear qualities in Part I, and goes on in Part II to examine the struggle to assign nuclearity again to African uranium mines in order to ascertain the presence and severity of health issues associated with radon exposure. Notable in her narrative is Hecht’s inclusion of the underpriviledged workers and communities that the fluctuating definition of nuclearity often subjugated to the economic and political interests of those in power.[1]

I was fascinated by Hecht’s work in Part II on nuclearity’s effect on organizations’ and governments’ handling of the occupational health issues of uranium miners. In her narrative, retold through many examples throughout the book, workers and organizations concerned with workers’ health had a very difficult time making the medical consequences of radon exposure visible. One reason for this, Hecht argues, is that the infrastructure required to create knowledge about uranium’s health effects was not present. An association between the work performed by the miners and the (often long-term and delayed) illnesses from which they suffered proved difficult to ascertain with certainty — especially when the economic consequences of such an association were of such importance. I wonder why knowledge created elsewhere — in studies conducted on uranium mines in the United States or France, for instance — was not transferrable. Why should the same study need to be conducted in every individual uranium mine? Could nuclearity, either through its political or economic interpretations, have had an effect on how mobile knowledge about radon exposure was? Technopolitical and economic motivations, it seems, have direct implications for knowledge mobility.

Osiris — Global Power Knowledge: Science and Technology in International Affairs

Osiris’s special issue on “Global Power Knowledge” offers a broader perspective of one of the key issues that underlies Being Nuclear — that of science and technology’s changing relationship with politics after World War II and its importance in understanding international affairs in the Cold War and modern era. Articles, roughly divided into temporal sections, deal with multiple themes. One such topic is the technopolitical race for sovereignty and supremacy; decolonization ushered in a new era where international power hierarchies were based upon scientific and technological adeptness, and nuclear technologies played only a part in this discourse. Another important line of inquiry is the effect state patronage (and thus, at varied extents, state motivations) has had on the kinds of knowledge produced, its mobility between nationalized centers of production, and the institutions and frameworks that sponsored it. The last theme, globalization, underlies articles that discuss the relationship between science and technology’s increasingly important role in politics in the modern era. The rise in significance of NGO’s and their influence on scientific work, collaboration, and funding has changed the technopolitical atmosphere in which researchers conduct studies. While far from exhaustive, this summary offers the main ideas that run through the many more specific articles that make up the collection.

I was taken aback by something after reading Being Nuclear and browsing through Osiris’s “Global Power and Knowledge” special addition: the degree of integration of technology into politics and the many effects this has had. If I had a nickel for every time the term “technopolitical” came up in the readings this week, I would be a very rich woman, and for good reason — it seems that the twentieth century witnessed an unprecedented increase in the integration of scientists, engineers, and their technologies into the political realm. The rise and attempted control of nuclear power sources exemplifies this transition. Hecht’s work discusses how the political implications of nuclear power resonated in many different spheres, and one example she articulates in particular resonated with me. The value of uranium to African countries attempting to solidify their sovereignty was paramount due to the (however well-hidden in the development of the “banal” uranium market) political implications of a nuclear research program in the international community. This had direct ramifications for those working in African uranium mines; the radon particles poisoning workers’ lungs was, although known to some extent, underplayed and understudied. Politics, in this instance, dictated not only what would and would not be scientifically studied in regards to the development of an atomic industry; it harmed an entire group of underprivileged people in a very real way. Technology and politics, I think, are two entities that should be very carefully monitored if allowed to join their power and motivations at all.

This led me into further reflection about something we have discussed many times in class — the line between history and social and political commentary. While I still find “purer” histories more to my intellectual taste, the value of histories that address modern-day implications is difficult to contest. In the case of Being Nuclear, there are still workers subjected to dangerous levels of radiation in uranium mines; how could a researcher not include this in her study? And how could a reader, whether or not the language used by the researcher implies it or not, not feel moved to action by such facts? Perhaps what I am getting at here is that a book does not need to be written politically to have political implications for its readers. If there truly is an injustice at hand, honest research and fact presentation should produce a result in reader activism just as readily as a polemic-ridden commentary on a perceived transgression would.

[1] Sorry for the nineteenth century paragraph, but this book was long, the arguments many, and the subject matter complicated.

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