What, then, does it mean for a workplace, a technology, or a nation to be “nuclear?” What is at stake in that label, and how do such stakes vary by time and place?

Department of History, University of Michigan
What is Africa’s place in the nuclear world? In 1995, a U.S. government report
on nuclear proliferation did not mark Gabon, Niger, or Namibia as having any
“nuclear activities.”1 Yet these same nations accounted for over 25 percent of
world uranium production that year, and helped fuel nuclear power plants in
Europe, the United States, and Japan. Experts had long noted that workers in
uranium mines were “exposed to higher amounts of internal radiation
than . . . workers in any other segment of the nuclear energy industry.”2
What, then, does it mean for a workplace, a technology, or a nation to be
“nuclear?” What is at stake in that label, and how do such stakes vary by
time and place?
In both political and scientific discourse, an apparently immutable ontology
has long distinguished nuclear things from non-nuclear ones. The distinction
has seemed transparent, fixed, and incontrovertible—ultimately a matter of
fission and radioactivity. Scholarship on the history, culture, and politics of
the “nuclear age” has also assumed the self-evidence of “nuclear” things. No
one questions whether bombs and reactors are “nuclear,” even while bitter
battles rage over their political, military, or moral legitimacy.
Acknowledgments: My biggest debts are to Paul Edwards and Bruce Struminger for their many
contributions. Useful comments also came from Soraya Boudia, Geoff Eley, Kenneth Garner,
Michelle Murphy, Martha Poon, Christopher Sellers, Matthew Shindell, and the reviewers of this
journal, as well as audiences in Minneapolis, Toronto, Eindhoven, Stony Brook, San Diego, and
1 Office of Technology Assessment, Nuclear Safeguards and the International Atomic Energy
Agency, OTA-ISS-615, Apr. 1995, App. B.
2 D. A. Holaday, “Some Unsolved Problems in Uranium Mining,” in, International Atomic
Energy Agency, International Labour Organisation, and World Health Organization, Radiological
Health and Safety in Mining and Milling of Nuclear Materials: Proceedings, vol. 1 (International
Atomic Energy Agency, 1964), 51.
Comparative Studies in Society and History 2009;51(4):896–926.
0010-4175/09 $15.00 # Society for the Comparative Study of Society and History, 2009
Beyond these clear-cut cases, however, the category of the “nuclear” has
never been defined by purely technical parameters. Like other master categories
that claim global purview, the “nuclear” both inscribes and enacts politics of
inclusion and exclusion. Neither technical function nor radiation sufficed to
make African nations and their mines “nuclear” in geopolitical terms. Such outcomes,
I have suggested elsewhere, were closely tied to the political economy
of the nuclear industry, with profound consequences for the legal and illegal
circulation of uranium and other radioactive materials and for the global institutions
and treaties governing nuclear systems.3 Here, I argue that the historical
and geographical contingencies affecting the “nuclear” as a category have also
had significant consequences for the lives and health of mineworkers. I focus
on African uranium miners, whose labor has fueled atomic weapons and
nuclear reactors around the world for over six decades. That these people
have been ignored both in histories of the nuclear age and by Africanists
speaks to mutually reinforcing assumptions about Africa’s place, and lack of
place, in a highly technological world. Challenging such assumptions requires
that we enter that world via its technologies.

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