Nuclear World write a paragraph and a multiple-choice question based on the article named”Africa and the Nuclear World: Labor, Occupational Health, and the Transnational Production of Uranium” and “issue 5″
write a paragraph and a multiple-choice question based on the article named”TAfrica and the Nuclear World: Labor, Occupational Health, and the Transnational Production of Uranium” and “issue 5”.
Africa and the Nuclear World:
Labor, Occupational Health, and the
Transnational Production of Uranium
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.
The essay thus explores the nuclear world in Africa, and Africa in the nuclear
world.4 I identify three moments of global imperception in the making and
legitimation of knowledge on radiation hazards: moments when African
people and workplaces went unaccounted for in “global” scientific knowledge
production. (“Global,” here, refers above all to the aims and claims of knowledge
producers.5) I juxtapose these moments with three uranium histories, situated
in Madagascar, Gabon, and South Africa, which analyze the labor
arrangements and regimes of perceptibility that produced such global imperceptions.
The production and dissolution of nuclear things in African places,
I argue, occurred in the friction between the transnational politics of knowledge
and (post)colonial power, between abstract prescriptions and embodied, instrumentalized
practices. Radiation infiltrated workers’ bodies; sometimes,
however, it also opened political possibilities.6
3 Gabrielle Hecht, “Nuclear Ontologies,” Constellations 13, 3 (Sept. 2006): 320–31; and
“Negotiating Global Nuclearities: Apartheid, Decolonization, and the Cold War in the Making of
the IAEA,” in John Krige and Kai-Henrik Barth, eds., “Global Power Knowledge: Science, Technology,
and International Affairs,” special issue of Osiris 21 (July 2006): 25–48.
4 For broader debates, see Jean-Franc¸ois Bayart, “Africa in the World: A History of Extraversion,”
African Affairs 99 (2000): 217–67.
5 I draw inspiration here from Frederick Cooper, Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge,
History (University of California Press, 2005); James Ferguson, Global Shadows: Africa in the
Neoliberal World Order (Duke University Press, 2006); Geoff Eley, “Historicizing the Global, Politicizing
Capital: Giving the Present a Name,” History Workshop Journal 63 (2007): 156–88;
Antoinette Burton. “Not Even Remotely Global? Method and Scale in World History,” History
Workshop Journal 64 (2007): 323–28.
6 In this and other ways, we might think of radiation as “imperial debris”; see Ann Laura Stoler,
“Imperial Debris: Reflections on Ruin and Ruination,” Cultural Anthropology 23, 2: 191–219.
A F R I C A A N D T H E N U C L E A R W O R L D 897
My core premise is that uranium mines are not born nuclear, in part because
the “nuclear” is not merely about radiation. Instead, I treat the nuclear as a
highly contingent technopolitical product of historical circumstances. Before
attending to my main argument, let me explain what this means by surveying
what I call “nuclear exceptionalism” and briefly discussing a few key concepts.
N U C L E A R E X C E P T I O N A L I SM
In the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the grip of atomic bombs on
global imaginaries derived strength through assertions of exceptionalism. Proponents
and opponents alike portrayed nuclear weapons as fundamentally
different from any other human creation by virtue of their apocalyptic potential.
As discourse, nuclear exceptionalism spanned spatial and temporal scales. On a
micro scale, fission—the physical process that powered atomic bombs—meant
splitting atoms. This deliberate rupture of nature’s building blocks propelled
claims to a corresponding, macro-scale rupture in historical time: the
“nuclear age.” Geopolitical status became proportional to atomic weapons
capacity. Nuclear nationalism in Britain and France allayed anxieties about
the loss of empire and U.S. imperialism, while in India it promised a postcolonial
reordering of global power.7 Even for states that did not aspire to atomic
weapons, nuclear energy could symbolize the zenith of modernity. Anti-nuclear
movements, meanwhile, also engaged in nuclear exceptionalism by highlighting
the dangers posed by human-made radioactivity, dangers unprecedented
in their longevity and scope. Nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island and
Chernobyl came to symbolize the nadir of modernity. Morality-talk further
magnified the stakes of exceptionalist assertions, depicting nuclear things as
salvation or depravity.
Yet nuclear exceptionalism went well beyond rhetoric—it was materialized
in objects, systems, and practices. It depended on sophisticated marshalling of
scientific knowledge, technologies of measurement and control, institutions,
social networks, imagery, and more. It needed national and international
atomic energy agencies, which built new systems of financing and accountability
for nuclear endeavors, separate from other governance institutions. It relied
on disciplines such as health physics, whose very epistemology was predicated
on isolating radiation from other health hazards. It required instruments such as
dosimeters, which measured radiation in people, and Geiger counters, which
measured radiation in places. And it thrived on the countless articles,
movies, novels, and images that came to constitute “atomic culture.”8 As the
7 Gabrielle Hecht, The Radiance of France: Nuclear Power and National Identity after World
War II (MIT Press, 1998); Itty Abraham, The Making of the Indian Atomic Bomb: Science,
Secrecy and the Postcolonial State (Zed Books and St. Martin’s Press, 1998).
8 There is a range of scholarship on these themes: M. Susan Lindee, Suffering Made Real: American
Science and the Survivors at Hiroshima (University of Chicago Press, 1994); John Krige, “The
Peaceful Atom as Political Weapon: Euratom and American Foreign Policy in the Late 1950s,”
898 G A B R I E L L E H E C H T
alliances among (and within) such formations of power varied across time and
place, so too did the effectiveness of nuclear exceptionalism, and indeed the
very meaning and material substance of the “nuclear.”
This, then, is why I refer to the nuclear as a technopolitical outcome of historical
processes. Politics shape its technologies, but its technologies also shape
its politics. Materiality matters tremendously. Enough atomic explosions really
can destroy the planet; radiation exposure really can cause cancer. But as countless
works in science and technology studies have shown, material realities
emerge from complex networks in which the social and the technical are inseparably
intertwined.9 In the domain of occupational exposures, for example,
instruments, labor relations, scientific disciplines, expert controversy, and lay
knowledge combine to create what Michelle Murphy has called “regimes of
perceptibility”—assemblages of social and technical things that make certain
hazards and health effects visible, and others invisible.10 Here I put
Murphy’s concept in dialogue with Anna Tsing’s notion of “friction,” a metaphor
for the creative and destructive power generated by universal aspirations
as they travel along changing axes of inequality.11 The notion of friction
calls attention to the unevenness with which knowledge travels, the
always-local circumstances that change its content along the way, and the
material consequences of its motion. Regimes of perceptibility in African
uranium mines, I argue, emerged from the friction between universalizing
Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 38, 1 (2008): 9–48; Itty Abraham, “The Ambivalence of
Nuclear Histories,” in John Krige and Kai-Henrik Barth, eds., “Global Power Knowledge: Science,
Technology, and International Affairs,” special issue of Osiris 21 (July 2006): 49–65; Joseph
Masco, The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico (Princeton
University Press, 2006); Paul Boyer, By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture
at the Dawn of the Atomic Age (Pantheon Books, 1985); SpencerWeart, Nuclear Fear: A History of
Images (Harvard University Press, 1988).
9 For a more extended discussion of technopolitics, see Hecht, Radiance of France. Other works
that explore these themes include: Donald A. Mackenzie, Inventing Accuracy: A Historical Sociology
of Nuclear Missile Guidance (MIT Press, 1990); Wiebe E. Bijker, Of Bicycles, Bakelite,
and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change (MIT Press, 1997); Bruno Latour, Reassembling
the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford University Press, 2005);
Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-politics, Modernity (University of California
10 Michelle Murphy, Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty: Environmental
Politics, Technoscience, and Women Workers (Duke University Press, 2006). For how such
issues relate to radiation exposure, see Adriana Petryna, Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after
Chernobyl (Princeton University Press, 2002). For exploration of “historical ontology” in relation
to occupational and environmental health debates, see Christopher Sellers, “The Artificial Nature of
FluoridatedWater: Between Nations, Knowledge, and Material Flows,” in Gregg Mitman, Michelle
Murphy, and Christopher Sellers, eds., “Landscapes of Exposure: Knowledge and Illness in Modern
Environments,” Osiris 19 (2004): 182–200; as well as other contributions to that special issue. See
also Christopher Sellers, Hazards of the Job: From Industrial Disease to Environmental Health
Science (University of North Carolina Press, 1997).
11 Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (Princeton University
A F R I C A A N D T H E N U C L E A R W O R L D 899
claims to, or denial of, nuclearity and particular imperial histories, with consequences
for occupational exposures, their legibility, and workers’ changing political
Consider a question that deeply concerned some of the people who appear in
this essay: does exposure to radon gas cause cancer? Uranium atoms decay into
radon, which in turn decays into other elements known as its “daughters.”
These decays release radioactive alpha particles, which miners inhale. Determining
causality via accepted scientific practice demands isolating the effects
of radon exposure—deciding whether illness in uranium miners comes only
from radon exposure, or also from other contaminants. There is also the question
of deciding what constitutes a radiation effect. Lung cancer? Genetic
mutations? Epidemiologists and geneticists respond differently. When do
“effects” occur? Is lung cancer thirty years after the victim’s last exposure an
“effect”? Labor lawyers and mining corporations offer different answers.
Regardless of perspective, all these questions ultimately required knowing
how much radiation mineworkers absorb. Before the 1980s, personal
dosimetry—giving each worker a film badge or a dosimeter pen—only
detected the external exposures produced by gamma rays emitted by radioactive
rocks. Such instruments did not detect the alpha radiation emitted by
inhaled radon daughters. In many places, mine managers also feared personal
dosimetry would scare workers by alerting them to an otherwise invisible
danger. Ambient dosimetry could accommodate the heavier instruments
required to “capture” radon daughters. Less personally intrusive, it involved
installing instruments throughout the mine and averaging out their readings.
But averages did not account for the experience of men assigned to “hot
spots”: spots far from air intakes, where reduced ventilation meant elevated
radon-daughter levels and higher temperatures—the kind of place where, for
example, white foremen stationed black workers in South African mines.
The scientific (and apparently presentist and delocalized) question of
causality—“does radon cause cancer?”—is thus also, always, a historical and
geographical question. It has no single, abstract answer above and beyond
the politics of expert controversy, labor organization, capitalist production,
or colonial difference and history. That answers depend on the friction
between these, however, is only visible at the technopolitical margins of
G L O B A L IMP E R C E P T I O N S , I
In 1963, at the first international conference on “Radiological Health and Safety
in Mining and Milling of Nuclear Materials,” in Vienna, Duncan Holaday of
12 As one reviewer was kind enough to point out, this point resonates strongly with the argument
made by the editors and contributors in Veena Das and Deborah Poole, eds., Anthropology at the
Margins of the State (School of American Research Press, 2004).
900 G A B R I E L L E H E C H T
the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) reported on early results from his study of
radon exposure in U.S. uranium miners. He framed his remarks like this:
“Among workers in the nuclear energy industry, uranium miners constitute a
unique group, in that the effects of exposure to excessive amounts of radon
and its daughters were observed and studied long before the fission of
uranium was discovered. As a group, they are exposed to higher amounts of
internal radiation than are workers in any other segment of the nuclear
energy industry.”13 Holaday’s audience, specialists on radiological exposure
from twenty-four countries and five international organizations, probably
found this statement unremarkable. They all knew about studies from the
early twentieth century showing high incidence of lung cancer among Czech
radium/uranium miners. In the historical context of struggles to regulate
radon levels in American uranium mines, however, two things stand out:
first, Holaday’s alignment of uranium miners with other nuclear workers,
instead of with other miners; and second, his insistence that these miners
were more vulnerable to radiation exposure than any other nuclear worker.
The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) did not officially accept either
of these premises in the 1960s. From a legal standpoint, digging uranium ore
out of U.S. soil did not count as a nuclear activity until much later.
Created in 1946, the AEC immediately fostered a massive uranium boom by
offering monetary rewards for ore strikes. In response, prospectors and small
mining consortia dug hundreds of mines on the Colorado Plateau. They sold
their ore to the AEC, the sole legal purchaser and consumer. But when AEC
scientists and others began expressing concern about miners’ radiation
exposure, the agency refused to accept regulatory responsibility. Using arguments
that would be echoed decades later by the South African Chamber of
Mines, it insisted that uranium mines fell under the ordinary jurisdiction of
state and federal agencies rather than the special, nuclear provisions of the
Atomic Energy Act. The AEC delegated the task of regulating radon levels
to state regulators, the PHS, and other federal agencies, none of which had sufficient
expertise, infrastructure, or authority to implement or enforce standards.
Some mine operators voluntarily upgraded their ventilation systems to decrease
radon exposure, but many did not. After bitter jurisdictional battles, a nationwide
exposure standard finally passed in 1967, but several more years
elapsed before it became enforceable. Dozens of former miners died from
lung cancer and other diseases as a result of their exposures.14 Lawsuits
13 Holaday, “Some Unsolved Problems,” 51.
14 Peter H. Eichstaedt, If You Poison Us: Uranium and Native Americans (Red Crane Books,
1994); Robert Proctor, Cancer Wars: How Politics Shapes what We Know and Don’t Know
about Cancer (Basic Books, 1995); Valerie Kuletz, The Tainted Desert: Environmental Ruin in
the American West (Routledge, 1998); J. SamuelWalker, Containing the Atom: Nuclear Regulation
in a Changing Environment, 1963–1971 (University of California Press, 1992).
A F R I C A A N D T H E N U C L E A R W O R L D 901
against the federal government failed to win compensation for miners and their
families. In 1990, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act finally made
uranium miners from the early Cold War era eligible for “compassionate payments,”
in recognition of their contributions to U.S. national security, provided
they could prove via medical tests and administrative histories that they had
acquired a radiation-related illness. Only then did U.S. uranium mining
become uncontestedly nuclear work.
Holaday’s insistence on the nuclearity of uranium mining may have reflected
the contested status of U.S. mines in 1963, but to French members of his audience
in Vienna he had only stated the obvious. The Commissariat a` l’Energie
Atomique (CEA) had taken such nuclearity for granted from its inception. It
monitored all manner of radiation in French uranium mines itself, with the
same labs and equipment used in reactors and other “nuclear” workplaces.
CEA experts had presented their first miner-exposure data five years earlier,
at a 1958 Geneva conference on peaceful uses of atomic energy. By contrast
to the U.S. AEC, French papers in Geneva and Vienna blared out nuclearity.
They described in painstaking detail how CEA experts set maximum permissible
levels, measured radon and radiation, and tracked exposures for each
worker, presenting images of dosimeters, film badges, and the iconic lead-lined
suits worn to work in highly radioactive environments.
The CEA had configured the nuclearity of French uranium mines by turning
radiation and radon into objects of exceptional workplace control. Dosimetry—
calculating the radiation dose absorbed by people—formed the core of this configuration.
In 1962, the CEA had amassed thirty-five thousand radon samples,
compared to the PHS’s six thousand.15 While the PHS measured only alpha
radiation emitted by radon, the CEA also measured gamma radiation emitted
by rocks; to this end, miners (like reactor workers) wore dosimeter pens or
film badges.16 CEA radiation protection experts emphasized their “exceptional
policing role,” which (at least in principle) gave them hierarchical power over
mine superintendents whenever they found exposures in excess of maximum
permissible levels.17 By contrast, PHS scientists took measurements under
15 F. Duhamel, M. Beulaygue, and J. Pradel, “Organisation du controˆle radiologique dans les
mines d’uranium franc¸aises,” 63; and D. A. Holaday and H. N. Doyle, “Environmental Studies
in the Uranium Mines,” 19; both 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).
16 D. Mechali and J. Pradel, “Evaluation de l’irradiation externe et de la contamination interne
des travailleurs dans les mines d’uranium franc¸aises,” 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): 373.
17 Robert Avril et al., “Measures Adopted in French Uranium Mines to Ensure Protection of Personnel
against the Hazards of Radioactivity,” in Proceedings of the Second United Nations International
Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, Held in Geneva, 1–13 September
1958, Vol. 21: Health and Safety: Dosimetry and Standards (United Nations, 1985), 63.
902 G A B R I E L L E H E C H T
the sufferance of mine operators, and only after agreeing not to inform miners
about their purpose. In France, dosimetry conferred social power on a new class
of experts, turning uranium mineshafts into nuclear workplaces. Dosimetric
results legitimated and extended that power; in 1958 the radiation protection
division proudly declared, “There has not been one instance of over-exposure.”
As proof, it provided the quantities of radon inhaled by mine personnel in each
of the “mining divisions in Metropolitan France.”18
Decades later, interviews with former French uranium miners suggest that
especially at first, radiation monitoring practices were unevenly implemented.
Workers remember early mineshafts with little ventilation, and places that made
the needles on their dosimeters fly instantly off the scale. Working conditions
quickly became the focus of labor union demands. By the early 1960s, French
miners had their own version of what made their work nuclear, and made their
own set of demands based on that nuclearity.19 Unsurprisingly, conference presentations
by the CEA’s radiation protection division did not discuss these alternate
productions of nuclearity. Here, however, I call attention to another
absence, lurking in the reference to metropolitan France.
AMB AT OMI K A , S O U T H E R N MA D A G A S C A R , 1950S – 1960S
From the mid-1950s onward, CEA radiation protection experts published a
steady stream of papers on their exposure-monitoring programs in uranium
mines. None of these, however, included data from CEA-owned mines
outside the metropole. The first of these mines to produce significant quantities
of uranium were open-cast quarries of uranothorianite ore in the Androy desert
in southern Madagascar. Launched in 1953, when Madagascar was still under
French colonial rule, these operations were considerably more rudimentary
than metropolitan mines. Run by a dozen or so French geologists, metallurgists,
and mining engineers, they often could not pay for themselves. Dedicated radiation
protection experts did not figure in their budgets. In the metropole the
nuclearity of uranium mines may have seemed self-evident, but in Madagascar
it remained as fractured and lumpy as the rocks that emerged from the quarries.
Expatriates saw their work as nuclear because it fed their nation’s atomic
energy program. The tricolor French flag flying over the central camp reaffirmed
this, as did yearly trips home where talk and images of reactors and
atom bombs enabled them to visualize their contribution to the “radiance of
France.”20 Visions of reactors and bombs did not, however, transfix Tandroy
19 Philippe Brunet does an excellent job analyzing this history in his book, La nature dans tous
ses e´tats: Uranium, nucle´aire et radioactivite´ en Limousin (Presses Universitaires de Limoges,
20 Robert Bodu, “Compte-rendu de mission a` Madagascar,” Direction des Recherches et Exploitations
Minie`res, Mars 1960, Coge´ma archives, accessed 1998 and 2000; Hecht, Radiance of
A F R I C A A N D T H E N U C L E A R W O R L D 903
or Betsileo mineworkers. The former miners and mill workers I spoke with in
1998 knew neither the purpose of their ore nor the existence of reactors and
bombs. When I explained, they laughed and shook their heads. “You crazy
vazahas [white foreigners],” said one man. “Why do you want this stuff?”21
Another, thinking of the region’s recently opened sapphire mines (where my
translator sometimes worked), shrewdly asked what sapphires were used
for.22 In their eyes, I was just another foreigner interested in rocks.
The time of vatovy (the local term for uranium ore) was indeed exceptional
for the Tandroy who lived through it, but that exceptionalism had little to do
with radiation, or with things that their French supervisors considered
nuclear. It had a lot to do with value, especially wages, and the investments
and business opportunities that they made possible. Fanahia worked in the
mines for thirteen years. “I bought 50 zebu [cattle],” he said, “and a
bicycle . . . and a cart, and a radio, and a watch that I ordered from
France. . . . I did some trading in watches. I would order them from Besanc¸on
and resell them to other men who worked with the vatovy.”23 Above all, vatovy
exceptionalism had to do with the arduous task of breaking rocks with jackhammers,
and the backbreaking work of loading rocks into wooden carts. Mahata
worked in the quarries with his father and two brothers, until his father fell on a
pneumatic drill and lost a leg. “We tell our children, you must guard the zebu carefully,
because the work we did to get them was painful.We broke our legs and our
feet doing that. So the zebu that are there must be well guarded. Because you, you
aren’t able to do that hard work. . . . Better to guard the zebu than to work
there.”24 Tales of rock slides and lost body parts abounded.
Radiation was not totally absent from Tandroy memories, but it appeared
indirectly: nested in needles, displaced into dosimeters, yoked to discipline,
and merged with medical monitoring. Some workers, for example, used
Geiger counters on a daily basis, to sort rocks into “good and bad piles.”25
21 Author’s interview with Mahata, Tsilamaha, Madagascar, 16 Aug. 1998. Interviews with
Tandroy and Betsileo mineworkers were conducted with the aid of translators M. Abdoulhamide
and Georges Heurtebize. Quotations that appear in italics indicate the words of the interviewee
as related by the translators; insertion of the first person is mine, and replaces the translators’ use
of the third person.
22 Author’s interviews with Fanahia and Itirik, Andolobe´, Madagascar, 13 and 14 Aug. 1998;
translator: M. Abdoulhamide. Although I did not know it at the time, such questions had their
obverse in northern Madagascar, where miners speculated that sapphires were used in bombs.
See AndrewWalsh, “In theWake of Things: Speculating in and about Sapphires in Northern Madagascar,”
American Anthropologist 106, 2 (2004): 225–37.
23 Fanahia interviews, op. cit. Such investments strategies contrast with the “daring consumption”
that Andrew Walsh describes for some young men working in the 1990s in the sapphiremining
town of Ambondromifehy, in “ ‘Hot Money’ and Daring Consumption in a Northern Malagasy
Sapphire-Mining Town,” American Ethnologist 30, 2 (2003): 290–305. The people I interviewed
were, necessarily, long-term inhabitants of the region with deep social networks that
bolstered and justified such investments; I do not know how migrant workers spent their wages.
24 Mahata interview, op. cit.
25 Fanahia interview, op. cit.
904 G A B R I E L L E H E C H T
The needle on the counter told the whole story: “When there is vatovy, the
needle goes to 500 or higher.”26 The presence of vatovy—unmediated by
radiation—made the needle jump. For French managers, radiation connected
the Geiger counters used for radiometric rock sorting and the dosimeters worn
by employees to measure their external exposures.27 For workers, however,
dosimeters seemed disconnected from Geiger counters, less instruments of
work than objects of discipline. “If you didn’t wear them, you were out. They
kept track of that,” said Joseph Ramiha.28 “It was the boss who put them on
us. He fixed them on our clothes,” remembered a woman who had worked in
one of the mills.29 Those who remembered wearing dosimeters often linked
them to illness and doctors. Some stories resemble radiation rumors from elsewhere,
complete with fears of sterility: “Yes, we asked why they were putting
them on and the boss said there was sickness inside, there was gas. . . . Yes, he
said what kind of sickness but we didn’t understand anything about that. . . .
Yes, we were worried . . . [the boss] said that maybe there was sickness in
there. There were others who said that you couldn’t have children with the sickness
from vatovy.We were afraid at first, but then there was nothing.”30 If women
remained fertile, perhaps there was no danger after all.
In the Androy, the application of the CEA’s prescriptions for radiation monitoring
was uneven at best, and depended entirely on individuals. Mines and
mills operated by private contractors—colonial concessionaires who sold
their ore to the CEA—did not use dosimeters at all. Fanahia worked in both
types of mines and remembered this well: “At the CEA they had them, but
not elsewhere.”31 At the CEA mines, meanwhile, some supervisors tried to
explain radiation hazards to their employees, but others did not bother. One
report portrayed Tandroy and Betsileo workers as irredeemably uncivilized,
so primitive that they would not even benefit from a job-training program. If
people could not understand radiation, then surely its hazards would remain
Nor did CEA facilities always heed metropolitan injunctions to design
processes with the goal of minimizing exposure. One CEA metallurgist, visiting
Ambatomika for a few weeks to help with the milling process, bemoaned
26 Author’s interview with Jeremy Fano, Tranomaro, Madagascar, 18 Aug. 1998; translator:
27 Antoine Paucard, La Mine et les mineurs de l’uranium franc¸ais. II: Le Temps des conqueˆtes
(Editions Thierry Parquet, 1992), 323.
28 Author’s interview with Joseph Ramiha, Tranomaro, Madagascar, 12 Aug. 1998; translators:
M. Abdoulhamide and Georges Heurtebize.
29 Author’s interview with group of women, Madagascar 1998, anonymity requested.
31 Fanahia interview, op. cit. This contrast was remarked upon by visiting CEA personnel as
well: Robert Bodu, “Compte-rendu de mission a` Madagascar,” ix–4.
32 Marc Edmond Morgaut, “Mission a` Madagascar pour le Commissariat a` l’Energie Atomique
du 11 au 21 novembre 1958,” Coge´ma archives.
A F R I C A A N D T H E N U C L E A R W O R L D 905
the crude methods used to dry the wet ore concentrates emerging from the
mills: “Concentrates are spread out in the sun on big sheets of corrugated
metal and turned over periodically by a worker . . . this procedure is clearly
archaic, long, and above all dangerous because the worker is exposed to dust
and radiation.”33 This visitor’s mandate did not, however, include measuring
specific worker exposures, let along mitigating them.
CEA production managers did not discuss exposures either. Tales of inclement
weather and technical woes filled the pages of their activity reports.
They devoted almost no space to radiation exposure. They clearly knew that
some jobs, such as packing uranothorianite concentrates for shipment to
France, presented significant exposure hazards.34 But they did not report on
the processes for distributing or collecting dosimeters, nor did they provide
tables of dosimeter readings. Reports only invoked exposures indirectly,
when accounting for production slowdowns resulting from moving overexposed
workers to less radioactive sites.
Such absences speak to the fragility of Madagascar’s ties to the nuclearity
that infused metropolitan uranium production. Of the three hazards signaled
by metropolitan radiation experts—radon, dust, and gamma rays—managers
in the Androy only made external gamma exposures perceptible. Measuring
levels of radon and dust; estimating the long-term exposures of individual
workers to these contaminants; weighting those exposures according to CEA
formulas; plugging all the weighted exposures into an equation in order to
derive the total monthly exposure for each employee—all that was well
beyond the technical capacity or expertise of managers in the Androy, operating
far from the CEA’s infrastructural support. So dosimeters were distributed,
gamma doses tracked just long enough to determine whether job rotation
was required that month, and there the monitoring ended. By 1967, people,
equipment, and quarries were all exhausted. The CEA packed its bags and
Even for CEA experts, the nuclearity of Androy mines was brittle and intermittent.
Threads of geological and metallurgical nuclearity ran through the consultants
who visited occasionally to advise managers about prospecting or ore
treatment. These experts noticed high radiation levels in passing, but those
levels did not shape design choices as they had in French mines. In Madagascar,
job rotation occurred in response to a single month’s dose, not as part of systematically
tracking long-term exposures. Radiation monitoring did not
empower a distinct class of experts there. Exposures made cameo appearances
in activity reports, but I found no evidence that anyone had compiled cumulative
numbers to produce scientifically legible data sets. We can only speculate
33 Bodu, “Compte-rendu de mission a` Madagascar.”
34 Y. Legagneux, “Rapport d’Activite´ du Service ‘Expoitation,’” May 1955, p. 21. CEA-DREM,
Mission de Madagascar, Division du Sud. Coge´ma archives.
906 G A B R I E L L E H E C H T
about the reasons. Perhaps the numbers themselves instantly became imperial
waste, discarded as soon as they were produced. If the raw numbers did make it
to France, perhaps they became waste there, consigned to accumulate dust
because no one thought they mattered. Maybe metropolitan radiation researchers
did not trust the numbers because they had not collected the data
Whatever the case, Malagasy radiation exposures did not appear in CEA
radiation protection publications. Today, there appears to be no way to
recover the cumulative exposures of Malagasy uranium workers. We do
know that because of their thorium content, these ores emitted exceptionally
high levels of gamma radiation (over twice that of pitchblende, very high-grade
uranium ore). A 1976 IAEA manual on radiological safety, coauthored by one
of the CEA’s radiation protection experts, mentioned this in passing, while
describing the hazards posed by gamma radiation in uranium mills: “In some
cases, concentrate of pitchblende has been reported to give rise to radiation
fields up to 40 mR/h. . . . Readings of up to 100 mR/h have been reported for
concentrates of uranothorianite mixed in the Malagasy Republic. . . .”35 This
reference to the radioactivity of the rocks, rather than the exposures of those
who had sorted and milled them, reflected the regime of nuclear perceptibility
that governed Malagasy uranium. CEA radiation-protection experts took
account of the ores’ high radioactivity levels only when the rocks entered the
metropolitan processing plant. That was where they acquired their full
nuclear significance, where their radioactivity seemed high by comparison to
other ores, where extra precaution was required in handling them. Those radiation
readings were the ones whose scientific value got traction, the ones that—
nearly a decade after the mines themselves had shut down—made it into an
international manual prescribing safe labor practices. Users of this manual in
the late 1970s probably did not wonder about who mixed those uranothorianite
concentrates, what levels of radon (and the equally hazardous thoron produced
by the thorium in the rocks) might have accumulated around piles of ore,
whether workers had been adequately monitored, how such dosimetric readings
might have affected international data sets, or what follow-up studies of worker
health might have revealed.
Following the CEA to Madagascar suggests that nuclearity came in different
technopolitical registers. The geological nuclearity of uranothorianite did not
automatically translate into occupational nuclearity for Malagasy workers, or
epidemiological nuclearity for their exposure data. More robust assemblages
of instruments and expertise might have extended the fragile regime that
made different forms of exposure perceptible. Additional, or different circuits
35 An mR/h is a unit that measures the radioactivity level of a substance. It signifies milli Roentgens
per hour. International Atomic Energy Agency, Manual on Radiological Safety in Uranium
and Thorium Mines and Mills (International Atomic Energy Agency, 1976), 9.
A F R I C A A N D T H E N U C L E A R W O R L D 907
of knowledge might have generated the friction and translations that would
have made Malagasy uranium production more nuclear, and its workers
more visible. The imperceptibility of exposures, the absence of friction and
translation, and the consequent long-term invisibility of Malagasies as radiation
workers: all of these emerged within geographically and temporally specific
colonial and postcolonial circuits of power.
This does not mean, however, that we can gesture grandly at “colonial
power” to explain the unevenness of nuclearity. The geographic and temporal
specificities of these circuits of power matter tremendously to what was rendered
perceptible, to whom, when, and with what physiological and political
results. To understand this, we must enter other circuits.
G L O B A L IMP E R C E P T I O N S , I I
In September 1974, the CEA and the International Labor Office (ILO) hosted
an international symposium on “Radiation Protection in Mining and Milling of
Uranium and Thorium” in Bordeaux, France. Co-sponsored by the World
Health Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency, the conference
took stock of work on the occupational health of uranium miners, methods
of monitoring exposures, and international differences in the maximum
permissible levels of radon, dust, and gamma radiation.
Two decades had passed since the International Commission on Radiological
Protection (ICRP) had issued its first guidelines on maximum permissible
levels (MPL) of radon in mines. As with all ICRP guidelines, these were
merely advisory; the commission had no enforcement power.36 National regulatory
bodies had to translate ICRP recommendations into mandatory standards.
Still, the commission’s legitimacy was considerable; the United States
and France developed their own formulations for maximum permissible
levels, but most other places based their MPLs on the methods outlined in
Nevertheless, controversy visibly flourished at international conferences like
the one in Bordeaux. There was widespread acceptance of the “fundamental”
occupational exposure limit of 5 rems, the maximum amount of radiation
workers could absorb in any given year. But how should this generic number
translate into specific MPLs for different types and sources of radiation?
The data informing this translation were disciplinarily heterogeneous:
36 The ICRP was started in 1928 as a group of physicists and radiologists trying to figure out
how to limit their own occupational exposure to radiation. After World War II its membership
grew and its aims broadened. By the mid-1950s, the ICRP was issuing recommendations on permissible
doses for externally and internally absorbed radiation in all manner of occupations. For
an insider history, see Roger Clarke and Jack Valentin, “A History of the International Commission
on Radiological Protection,” Health Physics 88, 4 (2005): 1–16. For an insider history of radiological
standards in the United States, see J. Samuel Walker, Permissible Dose: A History of Radiation
Protection in the Twentieth Century (University of California Press, 2000).
908 G A B R I E L L E H E C H T
epidemiological studies on the correlation between exposure and lung cancer,
lab experiments that exposed rats to radon, autopsies of dead miners, lung function
tests, and more. They were also empirically heterogeneous: there were
studies of uranium miners per se, but also epidemiological studies of Hiroshima
and Nagasaki victims, research on “non-nuclear” dust exposures related to
diseases like pneumoconiosis, and so on. Experts disagreed about the relative
significance of these data, and even their legibility. American epidemiologists
did not think French experiments exposing rats to radon said much about radon
effects in people. French health physicists thought that the ongoing U.S. PHS
study measured radon levels inaccurately. As Henri Jammet of the CEA noted
in his opening remarks in Bordeaux, even within the ICRP itself “there were
passionate discussions.” This had led to “apparent, and sometimes real differences”
in workplace norms in different international organizations and
countries.37 Such divergences could be extremely difficult to assess, because
they often stemmed from differences in the objects and tools of measurement.
The French, for example, calculated and weighted cumulative exposures from
three hazards (radon, dust, and gamma radiation), rather than assuming that
only radon mattered, as was standard in U.S. mines. The Americans, meanwhile,
measured the concentration of radon daughters directly because the
daughters (rather than pure radon) were what caused tissue damage. Measuring
daughters directly required expensive, complex instruments, which partly
explained why the PHS scientists had relatively few data points and thus, by
French standards, poor dosimetric accuracy. The French, along with the
ICRP, believed that in most mines a relatively simple formula could translate
radon gas values into daughter concentrations. And so on.
The 1974 Bordeaux conference was one of many sites in which such disagreements
played out. Discussions there did not bring closure to the controversies
(some aspects of which persist today). They did, however, enable French
experts to argue at length for the superiority of their approach to radiation monitoring.
Given the March 1974 announcement of a massive expansion of
France’s nuclear power program, there could not have been a more fortuitous
time to display dosimetric mastery.
Most striking for my purpose here, one of the longer presentations at the conference
was offered by Massan Quadjovie, an official in the Gabonese government’s
Direction des Mines. His audience included delegates not only from
North America and Europe, but also from India, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Turkey,
Zambia, and Zaire—all potential customers for the CEA’s instrumentation
37 Henri Jammet, “Les proble`mes de protection pose´s dans l’extraction et le traitement de
l’uranium et du thorium,” in, International Labour Office, Radiation Protection in Mining and
Milling of Uranium and Thorium (from a symposium organized by the International Labour
Office and the French Atomic Energy Commission, in cooperation with the World Health Organization
and the International Atomic Energy Agency, Bordeaux, France, 9–11 Sept. 1974) (International
Labor Office-Geneva, 1976), 3–10. All translations from the French are my own.
A F R I C A A N D T H E N U C L E A R W O R L D 909
and training programs. Listening to Quadjovie, they might well have concluded
that operations in Gabon offered a model exemplar of French dosimetric
According to Quadjovie, film badges to measure gamma exposures were distributed
and collected monthly, then sent to the CEA’s lab in France which
reported the results back to the Compagnie Minie`re d’Uranium de Franceville
(COMUF), the company operating the mines. In underground operations,
radon was measured via ambient sampling. Both gamma and radon results
were recorded on each employee’s exposure chart. If any “abnormal results”
occurred, “an investigation is immediately conducted to determine the causes
of the anomaly and take the necessary measures.” Quadjovie dutifully admitted
to some imperfections in the system: “Obviously this type of control implies
that one can trust the personnel, each employee being responsible for his
film badge. There are still some cases of forgetfulness, or of imaginative use
of the film. Sometimes the badge is lost or put into an environment that is
not representative of the working environment. One must therefore take all
these anomalies into account when compiling the results, and periodically
run checks at the worksite.”38 Unlike their Malagasy counterparts, then, Gabonese
workers were not completely invisible in the international space of knowledge
production. Making them visible, however dimly, enabled the Gabonese
state to display regulatory competence. Doing so at an international conference,
in turn, helped CEA experts display the meticulousness and portability of their
approach. Visible workers, finally, could shoulder the blame for any failures.
Still, Gabonese dosimetric results did not make it into the international scientific
literature any more than Malagasy ones had. To perceive them, we must
look in Gabon, and go back in time to the first decade of uranium production
at the COMUF.
MOUNANA, E A S T E R N G A B O N , 1960S – 2000S
The COMUF was a joint venture between the CEA and Mokta, a mining
company with long colonial experience. Launched in 1957, the site began producing
ore four years later. Xavier des Ligneris, the first director, had previously
run CEA uranium mines in France. In Gabon he tried to follow the
CEA’s prescriptions directly, treating radiation as separate from other health
and safety issues in the workplace. Anticipating the need for gamma, radon,
and dust monitoring, for example, he requested a technician solely dedicated
to radiation protection. Although he left the development of all other health
and safety guidelines to his managers, he personally wrote and signed those
pertaining to gamma rays, radon, and dust. The newly independent government
38 Massan Quadjovie, “Mesures techniques et administratives de radioprotection dans les
exploitations d’uranium de Mounana,” Radiation Protection in Mining and Milling of Uranium
and Thorium (International Labor Office-Geneva, 1976), 141.
910 G A B R I E L L E H E C H T
had many other things to worry about, and quickly issued a stamp of
Getting workers to wear the dosimetric film badges according to prescription
was less straightforward. At first they did not wear the films regularly enough.
Operations managers repeatedly issued warnings that films were “absolutely
obligatory,” and sanctions would ensue for non-compliance.40 Then workers
apparently wore the films too much: directives began warning employees not
to take their films outside the workplace. Film distribution became the responsibility
of supervisors, who keyed them to timecards.41
Des Ligneris expected that enforcing correct procedures would automatically
control exposures. But it did not. It could take up to eight weeks to obtain
results back from the CEA lab that processed the films. This lag time,
coupled with the inherent unpredictability of the ore body, meant that spikes
in external exposures continued.42 Once underground mining started, radon
added to his anxieties: the average concentrations of radon in the stopes regularly
exceeded MPLs, sometimes by a factor of twelve.43 Many employees consistently
exceeded their annual exposure limits, sometimes in less than eight
months. All the surveillance in the world could not stop the inexorable—and
aleatory—course of radioactive decay in the stopes. Nor could high exposures
be easily attributed to African incompetence. For one thing, ambient sampling
of radon meant that good results did not depend on individuals wearing instruments
correctly. For another, European employees also charted high readings.
Reports did not always indicate the difference in African and European
exposures, but when they did the amount of overexposure seemed comparable.
44 Many more African workers got overexposed, however, reflecting the
political economy of labor.
Radon turned labor management into a calculus of exposure. Employees
worked in high-level shafts until they had reached or exceeded their annual
39 Xavier des Ligneris to Secre´taire Ge´ne´ral, 8 July 1961; Xavier des Ligneris, “Consignes Relatives
a` la Protection Contre les Dangers dus a` la Radioactivite´,” Mounana, 5 May 1961; approuve´
par le Directeur des Mines du Gabon, Libreville, 1 June 1961, COMUF archives, Mounana,
40 Pierre le Fur, Note de Service 072bis, 3 Sept. 1964, COMUF archives.
41 Henri Pello, Service Exploitation, Note d’organisation, “Stockage et distribution des film
detecteurs de radioactivite´,” 26 Sept. 1966, COMUF archives.
42 Xavier des Ligneris, “Rapport—Controˆle des radiations,” HR/AP n8 2076, 5 Jan. 1968,
43 Xavier des Ligneris, “Rapport—Controˆle des radiations,” HR/AP n8 2076, 5 Jan. 1968;
Xavier des Ligneris, “Rapport—sur le controˆle des risques radioactifs. Fe´vrier 1968,” YT/AP n8
2169, 21 Mar. 1968, COMUF archives.
44 See, for example, Xavier des Ligneris: “Rapport—Controˆle des radiations,” HR/AP n8 2076,
5 Jan. 1968; “Rapport—sur le controˆle des risques radioactifs. Fe´vrier 1968,” YT/AP n8 2169, 21
Mar. 1968; “Reference: Votre UF/JL/JF29/68,” HP/MB n8 210/69, 27 Jan. 1968; and “Rapport sur
le controˆle des risques radioactifs. Mois de Mai 1968,” YT/LR n8 2275, 20 June 1968, COMUF
A F R I C A A N D T H E N U C L E A R W O R L D 911
limit, at which point they were moved to workplaces with lower radiation
levels. In and of itself, job rotation would have been familiar to des Ligneris:
one high-grade shaft in France had registered such high gamma levels that individual
workers could only work there for four hours every two weeks.45 At that
level of exposure, and in the metropole where mine operators could get quick
turnaround on dosimetric results, rotation could be planned in advance. Internal
radon exposures were less predictable than external gamma exposures,
however, and tougher to control. Furthermore, Mounana ore was of lower
grade, which meant that the mine ran on a tighter budget. By 1967, production
had fallen well behind schedule.46
All this made des Ligneris anxious, especially because there were other
limits to how well job rotation could address the problem of over-exposure.
As the mine got deeper and radiation levels increased, management feared it
would run out of skilled workers. Continually hiring new personnel offered
one solution, since new hires were assumed to be radiation virgins. But it
took time and effort to train new workers, canceling out the exposure benefits
from labor turnover.47 To address the problem, des Ligneris finally decided to
make some costly upgrades to the ventilation system. This worked, at least temporarily,
and from March to May 1968 radon levels decreased significantly.
In the meantime, however, corporate headquarters called for a change in leadership
at Mounana. As a CEA man, Xavier des Ligneris’s mining career had
focused entirely on uranium ore. His expertise had been key to finding and
mapping the deposit, drafting the initial mining plan, and building a strong prospecting
team. He had also fostered a tight articulation between Mounana’s production
program and the CEA’s nuclear fuel requirements. But Mokta had
expressed displeasure with des Ligneris’s direction for some time. It wanted
someone less concerned with the nuclear dimensions of his work, and better
attuned to budgetary constraints. In mid-1968, Mokta sent one of its own to
replace him: Christian Guizol.48
Gabonese employees remembered Guizol as a hard, uncompromising man.
His “severity” prompted complaints that, “It’s South Africa at Mounana;
blacks at the bottom and whites on top.”49 When gamma exposures climbed
back up in late 1968, Guizol—deeming his predecessor soft on discipline—
blamed the workers for not wearing films correctly. He tightened disciplinary
and surveillance measures around film use, and placed test dosimeters in the
shafts to compare with the ones worn by workers. Test results disappointed
45 Paucard, La Mine et les mineurs, 96.
46 J. de Courlon to Xavier des Ligneris, 10 Mar. 1967, COMUF archives.
48 Paucard, La Mine et les mineurs, 213; and author’s interview with Christian Guizol, Paris,
26 Feb. 1998.
49 Author’s interviews with Juste Mambangui and J.-M. Male´kou, Mounana, Gabon, 16 July
1998; Franc¸ois Mambangui, Libreville, Gabon, 31 July 1998.
912 G A B R I E L L E H E C H T
him: they matched worker badges. Radon levels also climbed back up:
seventy-eight workers registered overexposure in November 1969.50
So Guizol reconfigured the calculus of exposure. Rather than intensifying
job rotation, as des Ligneris had done, he raised the MPLs. He had noticed
that the ILO’s 1968 radon guidelines, which used a different formula to calculate
total exposure, ended up being less restrictive than the 1959 French guidelines
used by the COMUF. After a few numerical gymnastics, Guizol wrote a
report that justified the equivalent of a three-fold increase in radon MPLs and
aligned these with ILO guidelines. The new levels, he remarked bluntly, were
“more advantageous” to the company.51 The effect was immediate. As of
March 1970, not a single worker registered overexposure.52
No wonder, then, that Quadjovie could report complete success with the
COMUF’s radioprotection program in 1974. His Bordeaux paper offered a
sanitized account of the switch in MPLs, making no mention of the overexposures
that prompted the switch. Indeed, he may not have known about them:
I found nothing in the COMUF archives to suggest that Gabonese state officials
ever actually inspected radiation, radon, or dust in the mines.53
Not long before Guizol raised the MPLs, Marcel Lekonaguia began to question
his working conditions. In the mid-1960s he became a shift boss in the
shafts, in charge of blasting. Company guidelines specified that workers
should wait fifteen minutes after the blast before returning to the workplace.54
Lekonaguia probably did not know that French radiation protection guidelines
specified a waiting period of at least thirty minutes, to let the dust settle and to
give the ventilation system time to evacuate the extra radon released by blasting
rocks apart. What he did know, all too well, was that “after the blast, there’s a
lot of dust. . . . It is the dust that wasted us . . . you swallow it, you breathe it.”
Protective gear did not help: “Those little masks, they didn’t hold up well.
They’re made of paper . . . if it gets a little wet—paf!”—the mask would
dissolve. That, he insisted, was how he developed the cough, and assorted
other ailments, that would plague him for the rest of his life.
Lekonaguia also thought about the film badges, especially the tight discipline
they incarnated. “They said this film here, you must always keep it. At the
end of the month, they check them, they send them to see if the men reached
50 Ch. Guizol, “Rapport sur le controˆle des risques radioactifs. Mois de De´cembre 1969,” YT/sc
n8 0118/70, 9 Feb. 1970, COMUF archives.
52 Ch. Guizol, “Rapport sur le controˆle des risques radioactifs, Mois de Mars 1970,” YT/sc
n8 0184/70, 27 Apr. 1970, COMUF archives.
53 The COMUF granted me free access to its archives when I visited in 1998. These were not at
all organized, however, which made it impossible for me to find complete records on any single
topic. Thus, though I did not find records of state inspections, I cannot state conclusively that
none took place.
54 “Consigne pour la distribution et l’emploi des explosifs,” COMUF, Exploitation de Mounana,
n.d. (ca. 1959), COMUF archives.
A F R I C A A N D T H E N U C L E A R W O R L D 913
[the limit]. The results, they don’t give them to people.”55 All he ever learned
was whether he had reached some limit that would prompt job rotation. He
never found out what the numbers were, how close to the limit he had come,
how much he had accumulated over time, or even what the limit meant.
What, he wondered, was all the secrecy about?
His brother, Dominique Oyingha, became convinced that the company and
its doctor, Jean-Claude Andrault, were hiding something. And the state was
in on it. “Uranium caused many deaths, but the COMUF didn’t want to recognize
that,” he told me. “Nor did the state, because this was the big company of
the territory, whose secrets couldn’t come out . . . so as not to scare the
workers.”56 Only independent, external expertise could be trusted. Oyingha
took his brother to the Congo for tests. He knew there had once been a
uranium mine there, and he hoped Congolese doctors might help. Apparently
the doctors immediately guessed from Lekonaguia’s health condition that he
worked at the COMUF.
The two men returned to Mounana and confronted Andrault. The mine
doctor scoffed: “Are you crazy? . . . Who told you that uranium made people
sick?” Oyingha laughed as he remembered this response. He respected, even
loved, the doctor for the hospital he had set up. Andrault offered free
medical care to everyone in the region, not just to COMUF workers, and
that was precious beyond measure. But everyone had their limits, and
Oyingha did not expect the doctor to acknowledge the possibility of occupational
disease. He threatened Andrault: “I said, ‘my friend, you are my
friend, we have known each other for a good bit of time, but let me tell you
that the sickness that my brother suffers from, it comes from uranium. And
if you don’t want the news to spread . . . [so that] your workers don’t
become afraid, take proper care of my big brother. If he dies, I’m coming
after you.’”57 The COMUF granted Lekonaguia sick leave. But he wanted permanent
leave and compensation. The company refused, insisting that Lekonaguia
return underground if he wanted to draw his paycheck. In 1970, the two
brothers filed a complaint with the state social security office in Libreville.
This produced only a perfunctory inquiry, after which the company agreed to
move Lekonaguia to the open pit.58
Undeterred, Lekonaguia asked for his medical file. Andrault refused, citing
professional secrecy. No surprise there: “The doctor, he’s just a lawyer for the
COMUF.” The more the COMUF resisted, the more Lekonaguia and his family
55 Author’s interview with Marcel Lekonaguia, Mounana, Gabon, 21 July 1998.
56 Author’s interview with Dominique Oyingha, Mounana, Gabon, 17 July 1998.
57 Oyingha interview, op. cit.
58 Christian Guizol letter to Directeur Ge´ne´ral de la Caisse Gabonaise de la Pre´voyance Sociale,
19 Oct. 1970, Objet: Allocations familiales de M. Lekonaguia Marcel; Christian Guizol letter to
Directeur Ge´ne´ral de la Caisse Gabonaise de la Pre´voyance Sociale, 26 Oct. 1970, Objet: Monsieur
Lekonaguia; J. C. Andrault letter to Docteur C. Gantin, 27 Oct. 1970, COMUF archives.
914 G A B R I E L L E H E C H T
became convinced that his illnesses were work-related. Over the course of the
1970s and 1980s, more and more people from the region went to France as students,
sometimes even on training stints sponsored by the COMUF, where they
witnessed anti-nuclear protests. Lekonaguia’s nephew, among others, returned
with confirmation that, “This product that we’re mining, it’s a toxic product.”59
Finally, Lekonaguia decided that if COMUF managers kept rejecting his
demands then he would rebuff theirs. He began refusing to render his film
badges on a monthly basis. He suspected that his diagnosis, along with the
chain of causality that linked work to illness, could be read directly from the
films. One day, he explained as he showed me one of the films, he would
find someone else to read the results. He probably was not alone in this reasoning.
In the mid-1980s, COMUF quarterly radiation protection reports routinely
recorded the numbers of non-returned films. (This statistic had not appeared in
earlier reports.) During some months over 25 percent were not returned.
Mining operations in Gabon were much more extensive than they had been
in Madagascar, and lasted much longer (until 1999). Links with France were
denser, more extensive, and more varied. By monitoring radiation separately
from other workplace dangers, des Ligneris had granted it exceptional status,
and made Mounana mines more nuclear than those in the Androy. Important
aspects of the regime of perceptibility that he had established lasted: rather
than report readings sporadically in the footnotes of productivity tables, as
their counterparts in Madagascar had done, COMUF managers continued to
report dosimetric results as distinct data, and continued to track both radon
and gamma levels for individuals as well as for workspaces. But this regime
only made exposures legible to upper management—not to workers. It produced
managerial (and, for des Ligneris, technological) data, not health data;
the company’s much-vaunted medical service did not treat them as relevant
to its clinical work. The nuclearity of uranium work resided primarily in dosimetric
instruments whose esoteric legibility could only occur in France. That
legibility, furthermore, depended on interpretive systems, such as formulae
for calculating dose accumulations, whose meaning shifted when placed in
different global circuits, as when Guizol moved from French to ILO standards.
The Gabonese state, meanwhile, had neither means nor motive to broaden the
COMUF’s production of nuclearity. It had no reason not to rubberstamp the
COMUF’s request for a switch in MPLs, particularly when legitimated by a
global organization like the ILO.
Unlike in Madagascar, however, the spatial and temporal dimensions of
Gabon’s postcolonial conditions did create spaces in which workers could
acquire knowledge and experience outside the boundaries imposed by management.
Access was slow and sporadic, operating through a trip to the Congo or a
59 Oyingha interview, op. cit.
A F R I C A A N D T H E N U C L E A R W O R L D 915
nephew with a French education. Such friction did produce other interpretations
and contexts for the radiation recorded in film badges. But for decades
these modes of perception offered only glimmers of politically significant
Yet many COMUF workers remained suspicious about their occupational
health status well after the mine shut down in 1999. In 2001, Gabon passed a
law creating a state agency to monitor radiation exposure, perhaps thanks to a
former COMUF employee subsequently elected to Parliament.60 Another three
years elapsed before the agency came into existence. Nonetheless, former
employees and Mounana inhabitants evidently still distrusted the state. They
complained that remediation work focused only on containing loose ore left
behind by the mining activities, and they sought a medical nuclearity for their
work. Inspired by reports of Aghirin’man, an NGO that addressed illnesses in
Nige´rien uranium mines, in 2005 a group of Mounana residents formed the Collectif
des anciens travailleurs miniers de Comuf (CATRAM) to advocate for a
health and environmental monitoring program and a fund to disburse medical
compensation claims.61 The CATRAM joined forces with several French
NGOs: a group formed of expatriate COMUF ex-employees, launched in
2005 by one of their widows; Sherpa, an association of high-profile legal
experts formed in 2001 to investigate global human rights and environmental
justice violations perpetrated by French companies; and most importantly, the
CRIIRAD, an independent laboratory created after the 1986 Chernobyl accident
to develop nuclear expertise unbeholden to the French state.
These NGOs eventually managed to send a small team of scientists, doctors,
and lawyers to Mounana in June 2006. The team took independent environmental
readings and interviewed nearly five hundred former COMUF employees
about their health and work experience. Survey responses echoed narratives
I heard from Lekonaguia, Oyingha, and others in 1998. Most reported no
formal training on radiation or radon-related risks and no feedback on their
monthly dosimetric readings; they agreed that the Gabonese state had done
nothing to monitor working conditions or occupational health; and one
former medical doctor testified that company clinicians had no training in
uranium-related occupational health, and that the company’s radiation protection
division consistently refused to transmit dosimetric readings to the
medical division. The report was released at a much-publicized press
60 “Loi no. 11/2001 du 12 de´cembre 2001 fixant les orientations de la politique de pre´vention et
de protection contre les rayonnements ionisants,” Hebdo informations, Journal hebdomadaire
d’informations et d’annonces le´gales 451 (23 Feb. 2002): 22–23 (Gabon).
61 Jules Mbombe Samaki, “Memorandum sur la ne´cessite´ de la prise en compte de la Veille sanitaire
et du de´dommagement des anciens travailleurs miniers,” private communication, Libreville,
25 Apr. 2005. See also reports in the Gabonese press: “Le Collectif des anciens travailleurs
miniers interpelle la Comuf,” L’union, 3 Feb. 2006; and “Les anciens travailleurs miniers de la
Comuf re´unis en collectif,” L’union, 17 Feb. 2006.
916 G A B R I E L L E H E C H T
conference in Paris in April 2007.62 The following month, Areva (the secondgeneration
corporate heir to French nuclear fuel cycle operations, and thus the
new parent company for the COMUF) announced that it would install a “health
observatory” in Mounana.63 It remains to be seen what such an observatory will
make perceptible, and to whom.
Invoking nuclearity—insisting on its insufficient recognition—ultimately gave
former COMUF workers access to activists in Niger and France. Configuring
nuclearity in medical terms required new networks to extend the boundaries of
existing regimes of perceptibility. Their strength, in turn, depended on how extensively
they could articulate a nuclearity for Mounana. It depended on how successfully
these extended regimes could translate workplace exposures into
technopolitical claims—complete with independent radiation readings—whose
purchase would reach beyond the profoundly unequal relationships among the
Gabonese state, the mining corporation, and its workers. In this reconfiguration
timing and context made all the difference: at the most basic level, independent
scientific expertise and transnational circuits of legal nuclear accountability
were simply not available in the mid-1960s, when the Androy mines closed.
Clearly much more could be said about recent events in Gabon and their
dependence on the production of technopolitical histories, contrasting
regimes of perceptibility, and changing transnational legal circuits. I put
these themes aside, however, in favor of a final example of the contingency
of nuclear things. Mounana under Guizol may have seemed “like South
Africa” to some. But what do we see if we compare the COMUF to
apartheid-era uranium producers in South Africa?
G L O B A L IMP E R C E P T I O N S , I I I
A quick glance through the scientific literature could convey the mistaken
impression that South Africans, like the CEA in France, considered uranium
mining a fully nuclear task. At the 1958 Geneva conference on atomic
energy they had presented one of only three papers on radiation in mines.64
The paper described the 1956 visit of U.S. AEC experts to South African
mines, where they conducted a brief survey of radon and radon daughters.
Given that the AEC refused to monitor radon in American mineshafts, this
visit might seem surprising. But it fit into a larger framework of uranium
cooperation between the two nations. South Africa’s famous Witwatersrand
gold mines contained abundant quantities of uranium ore, and the United
62 Samira Daoud and Jean-Pierre Getti, “Areva au Gabon: Rapport d’enqueˆte sur la situation des
travailleurs de la COMUF, filiale gabonaise du groupe Areva-Coge´ma,” Sherpa, 4 Apr. 2007, http://
63 “L’observatoire de Mounana,” L’union, 1 June 2007.
64 S. F. Oosthuizen et al., “Experience in Radiological Protection in South Africa,” in Proceedings
of the Second United Nations International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy
(United Nations, 1958), 25–31.
A F R I C A A N D T H E N U C L E A R W O R L D 917
States and the United Kingdom had signed contracts to purchase some 10,000
tons of it. Lively scientific exchange had ensued among the three nations, as
metallurgists and other experts collaborated on industrial processes to separate
the uranium from the gold.65 Dr. Roy Albert, probably one of the few in the
U.S. AEC who had actually wanted his agency to monitor radon, went to
South Africa as part of such exchanges.
The AEC radon survey found that average levels in South African shafts
were tiny compared to U.S. figures, and only slightly above international
limits. South African scientists attributed these results to “high ventilation standards”
and concluded, “Probably as the result of the stringent safety precautions
the radioactivity in South African mines does not represent a health
hazard.” Using Albert’s analysis of Johannesburg hospital autopsy data for
miners, the South Africans reported that this analysis did “not reveal any evidence
of increased incidence of lung cancer in miners.” They dismissed
Albert’s recommendation to conduct a more detailed follow-up study,
arguing that their data suffered only from “the usual defects common to hospitals
all over the world.”66
By emphasizing the ordinariness of their dataset’s defects, these scientists
doubtless hoped to deflect their international audience’s attention away from
its racial dimensions.67 Roy Albert himself must have expressed doubt and
raised the possibility of including “natives” in a follow-up study, even if he
himself ended up dismissing that option: his report to the AEC noted that
short employment contracts and high mobility (information which he must
have obtained from his South African hosts) made “the native population
unsuitable for the radon study.”68 Perhaps this unsuitability obviated any
mention of the fact that the Johannesburg hospital autopsy series included
only white patients. In pre-civil rights America, this too must have seemed
like a characteristic “common to hospitals all over the world.”69
65 Thomas Borstelmann, Apartheid’s Reluctant Uncle: The United States and Southern Africa in
the Early Cold War (Oxford University Press, 1993); Margaret Gowing, Independence and Deterrence:
Britain and Atomic Energy, 1945–1952 (Macmillan Press, 1974); Jonathan E. Helmreich,
Gathering Rare Ores: The Diplomacy of Uranium Acquisition, 1943–1954 (Princeton University
66 These were listed as “factors which influenced cases sent to autopsy by the medical attendants
(personal interests and bias, etc.), religious grounds for relatives refusing autopsy, type of cases
treated in the hospital (e.g., special clinics), etc.” Oosthuizen et al., “Experience in Radiological
67 On apartheid science, see Saul Dubow, A Commonwealth of Knowledge: Science, Sensibility
and White South Africa 1820–2000 (Oxford University Press, 2006).
68 R. E. Albert (U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, Division of Biology and Medicine), memo to
files, subject: “Medical Services in the South African Gold Fields and the Shinkolobwe Uranium
Mine.” NV0727618 in U.S. Department of Energy, Nevada Test Site electronic archives.
69 For an analysis of how population categories have only recently changed in American medical
research, see Steven Epstein, Inclusion: The Politics of Difference in Medical Research (University
of Chicago Press, 2007).
918 G A B R I E L L E H E C H T
South African scientists may have thought that this early radon study made
further research unnecessary, but scientists in the U.S. Public Health Service
and at the ICRP remained intrigued by the Witwatersrand shafts. They suspected
that surveying these could help settle a major scientific debate over
whether radiation exposure had any health effects below a certain threshold
(as opposed to health effects remaining proportional to exposure no matter
how small the dose). For a decade after the 1958 Geneva paper, PHS and
ICRP scientists urged their South African colleagues to conduct more extensive
research.70 Growing condemnation of apartheid had begun to close down
opportunities for international research exchanges, so such requests had
become increasingly rare. Finally, J. K. Basson of the South African Atomic
Energy Board (AEB) agreed to run a pilot study in collaboration with the
Chamber of Mines. He wrote up the results in a 1971 report, concluding,
“The death rate from lung cancer among White South African miners has
not been increased by radon exposure,” and “Although this investigation was
undertaken as a pilot study, it appears that no improved results would be
obtained by increasing the sample size.”71 A common South African refrain:
no problems detected, no further study needed.
Once again, Basson’s study involved only white miners. Once again,
Basson’s assertion, “This study had to be limited to White miners because
the Non-White group . . . comprises mainly unskilled workers who come
from rural areas and work for intermittent periods varying from a few
months to 1 1/2 years before returning to their homelands,” did not raise any
American eyebrows. Foreign experts may not have realized that most of the
several hundred thousand black workers returned repeatedly to the mines: an
African mineworker’s total time in the mines could exceed twenty years.
Yet even if U.S. experts had understood this, for them the omission would
have paled next to Basson’s conclusion, which explicitly addressed American
debates about lowering permissible levels in mineshafts: “Although the induction
of lung cancer by high concentrations of radon and radon daughters cannot
be questioned, this study has produced no evidence for any effect at the cumulative
exposures encountered in South African mines. . . . Consequently there is
no support for the proposed decrease of the permissible radon daughter levels
. . . as envisaged in the USA.” To make matters worse for the PHS, Basson had
sent the report directly to Union Carbide’s uranium operation in Colorado,
which had forwarded the report to other mining corporations and the U.S.
70 For example: C. G. Stewart and S. D. Simpson, “The Hazards of Inhaling Radon-222 and Its
Short-Lived Daughters: Consideration of Proposed Maximum Permissible Concentrations in Air,”
in Radiological Health and Safety in Mining and Milling of Nuclear Materials: Proceedings, vol. 1
(International Atomic Energy Agency, 1964), 333–57.
71 J. K. Basson et al., “Lung Cancer and Exposure to Radon Daughters in South African Gold/
Uranium Mines,” Atomic Energy Board: PEL 209, Pelindaba, Mar. 1971 (English-language
A F R I C A A N D T H E N U C L E A R W O R L D 919
AEC.72 The report landed late at the PHS. Frantic that it would serve “as
ammunition to repudiate the PHS data and conclusions,” experts there
responded harshly. They accused the South Africans of “gross underreporting”
of lung cancer and urged “that a competent epidemiologist, above suspicion of
any possible conflicts of interest . . . be employed to pursue the problem in a
technically competent manner, taking all the careful steps and precautions
that he has been trained to take with such difficult data.”73 Reading a classic
capitalist conflict between corporate interests and state regulation into
Basson’s data analysis, and panicked that the report might jeopardize their
own hard-won standard, PHS scientists apparently did not wonder whether
racial exclusion might have also skewed the data.
T H E WI TWAT E R S R A N D ( “ T H E R A N D ” ) , C E N T R A L S O U T H A F R I C A ,
1980S – 1990S
In 1980, a young British scientist named Shaun Guy accepted a job with the
South African Atomic Energy Board’s licensing branch. Moving to South
Africa in the early 1980s was, he later admitted, an odd choice. The apartheid
regime was getting steadily more violent and repressive, and the paramilitary
wing of the ANC had begun to respond by sabotaging military and industrial
installations. But Guy had trouble finding good employment at home, so he
The licensing branch was a small division, staffed by two other foreign transplants.
Sometime around 1976, a few years before Guy’s arrival, they had realized
that South Africa had produced uranium for over twenty years with no
regulatory oversight. Their early attempts to rectify this met with strong resistance
from the mining industry, which insisted that mineshafts (contrary to a
statement in South Africa’s nuclear energy act) did not count as “nuclear”
installations for regulatory purposes.74 The Chamber of Mines closely
guarded its data on radon levels, so the licensing branch had little ammunition.
72 R. G. Beverly letter to J. T. Sherman, 25 May 1971, subject: report titled “Lung Cancer and
Exposure to Radon Daughters in South African Gold/Uranium Mines,” NV0061126; R. D. Evans
letter to C. R. Richmond, 2 June 1971, subject: “Report on Lung Cancer and Exposure to Radon
Daughters in South African Gold/Uranium Mines,” NV0061125, Nevada Test Site electronic
archives (both letters were given the quoted titles by the archives).
73 A. H. Wolff letter to I. Mitchell, subject: “Lung Cancer and Exposure to Radon Daughters in
South African Gold/Uranium Mines” (no enclosures), 10 June 1971, NV0061124; M. A. Schneiderman
(National Cancer Institute) letter to Deputy Assistant Administrator for R&D, Environmental
Protection Agency, subject: “Report Concerning White South African Gold Miners and
Bronchiogenic Cancer,” June 18, 1971, NV0061122; V. E. Archer letter to A. Wolff, 16 June
1971, subject: Preliminary Report re: “Lung Cancer and Exposure to Radon Daughters in South
African Gold/Uranium Mines (Criticisms of Report),” NV0061123, all in Nevada Test Site electronic
archives, which conferred the quoted titles.
74 A. J. A. Roux toW. P. Viljoen, 16 May 1979, internal ref. LB/35/6/10, Shaun Guy, “A Review
of Files at the Government Mining Engineer Concerning Radiation in Mines and Works,” 26 Aug.
1986, 3, Shaun Guy private papers.
920 G A B R I E L L E H E C H T
Soon after he arrived, Guy decided to poke around: “I went through the library
and the archives, contacted people who worked at the AEB who . . . assisted me
in getting hold of reports I couldn’t ask for myself. So a lot of this was done
underhand. . . . And there were quite serious security implications. . . . You
had to sign an Official Secrets Act, so some of the stuff I did was illegal.”75
Guy ended up with a hoard of documents, including Chamber correspondence,
which revealed clear problems with radon levels. Buried among these was
Basson’s 1971 report.
Guy covered his copy of the report with outraged notations. His interpretation
of Basson’s impulse to discontinue research (and radon monitoring) differed
from that of American epidemiologists: “A lot of the senior scientists who
were involved with the Chamber and the surveys and writing the epidemiological
assessment from these results were very hostile to the ICRP and their new
dose limits. . . . At that time also there was the whole thing of sanctions and this
closing in and basically there was a lot of hostility to outside organizations
which is a sort of political thing—it’s part of the culture.”76 He also noticed problems
missed by the Americans. Basson had calculated cumulative exposures
“by multiplying the number of shifts worked underground on the gold mines by
the estimated radiation levels for each mine on which they worked.”77 This
statement earned a double question mark from Guy. First, Chamber officials
had only measured actual radiation levels in about 10 percent of the mines.
Second, averages were meaningless: even within a single mine radon levels
could vary by several orders of magnitude. Variation had to do with ventilation,
and ventilation had to do with race: “If you know anything about working
underground at that time . . . even in the ‘80s . . . most of the work was done
by the black guys who were on the face, the stopes. They tended to be in the
areas (what they call the ‘return airways’) where the air is hotter, right? It’s
much cooler in the intake airways. So . . . white miners were mostly located
for much of the time in the intake airways where their exposure would be
less. So if you take the white miners [as] the base line for exposure . . . that’s
the wrong benchmark to take, it’s a biased mark.”78 Digging around in data collected
during the 1950s and 1960s, Guy saw many instances of substantial
radon build-up in working shafts, in some spots reaching ten times ICRP
These old data alone could have justified regulatory measures. But the industry
had successfully kept such measures at bay for over thirty years. It was not
75 Interview by the author and Bruce Struminger with Shaun Guy, Johannesburg, South Africa,
12 July 2004. Guy generously gave me copies of the documents he had collected.
76 Guy interview, op. cit.
77 Basson, “Lung Cancer and Exposure to Radon Daughters,” 12.
78 Guy interview, op. cit.
79 “Results of Radon Daughter Sampling in Bird Reef,” West Rand Consolidated Mines, Ltd.,
Mine Office, West Rand, 13 Dec. 1973, Shaun Guy private papers.
A F R I C A A N D T H E N U C L E A R W O R L D 921
about to cave to a small group of foreign upstarts relying on old data. Especially
because South African uranium production had slumped by the mid-1980s so
that many shafts had reverted to straightforward gold production. If anything,
argued the Chamber, nuclear regulation of mines seemed even less justifiable.
Nevertheless, Guy and his colleagues were not ready to give up.
The Chamber had argued that the mines were less nuclear because they produced
less uranium. Yet radon could build up in shafts worked for gold too.
Guy realized that before reaching active shafts ventilation sometimes circulated
through old workings where radon accumulated. Proving that “hot spots” still
existed, however, required new data. The licensing branch managed to enlist
help from the office of the Government Mining Engineer. Accompanied by
two GME inspectors, Guy and his colleagues met with the manager at the
West Rand mine in 1986. They slyly proposed to use his mine as a “model facility
with regard to testing survey methods.” The manager resisted, but eventually
agreed to a short survey provided that it remained “low key [and]
confidential.” He would have to obtain approval from his board for a longerterm
survey “as it was a ‘sensitive’ matter given the union ‘situation’ at
present.” Neither white nor black workers knew about radon; white workers
congregated around intake airways because they were cooler, not to minimize
radiation exposure. Indeed, most workers did not know that the ore they sent up
contained uranium in addition to gold.80
The preliminary West Rand survey showed elevated radon levels, up to two
to five times the ICRP limits. The licensing branch remarked that this gave
“cause for concern since workers appear to have been routinely exposed at
these and higher levels for the last 30 years.”81 Backed by the GME and
their data, Guy and his colleagues now felt unstoppable. Over the next two
years, they carried out extensive surveys of many Rand mines. The results
showed systemically high radon levels.
Still, obtaining data was only the first step toward regulation. The battles
continued. As the 1980s drew to a close, the institutions of formal apartheid
began to crumble. Laws were being rewritten, including the Nuclear Energy
Act. As a first step in reorganization, the licensing branch achieved independent
institutional status, becoming the Council for Nuclear Safety (CNS). Nevertheless,
the question of what the new entity would regulate remained a battleground.
The Chamber of Mines fought hard against designating mineshafts
80 Shaun Guy, “Memorandum: Meeting at West Rand Consolidated with the Mine Manager, 24
February 1986.” LB/35/6/10/8, Shaun Guy private papers. For a discussion of the “union situation”
that the manager mentioned, see T. Dunbar Moodie with Vivienne Ndatshe, Going for Gold: Men,
Mines, and Migration (University of California Press, 1994).
81 U.S. Atomic Energy Commission Licensing Branch, “Report of the Underground Survey for
Radon Daughters at West Rand Consolidated Mine, 5 March 1986,” 23 May 1986, p. 5, LB/35/1/
13; LB/35/6/10/8, Shaun Guy private papers. By this point, the South African Atomic Energy
Board had changed its name to the Atomic Energy Corporation of South Africa.
922 G A B R I E L L E H E C H T
as “nuclear” workplaces subject to CNS regulation, arguing that radiation protection
should fall under the (less intrusive) purview of the Department of
Health. Radon, insisted the Chamber, was “essentially a health issue and not
a nuclear energy issue”; no matter how high their exposure, the hundreds of
thousands of men laboring in the shafts were mineworkers, not nuclear
workers.82 In a 1995 letter to Parliament, Chamber president A. H. Munro brazenly
invoked “South Africa’s transition to full democracy.” He argued, “The
Nuclear Energy Act does not provide for public participation, transparency or
accountability. Instead it puts extensive power and decision-making responsibilities
solely in the hands of expert authorities. Furthermore, it also makes
no provision for making the essential social judgements in respect of acceptance
of certain risks in exchange for benefits to society.” Suddenly the
Chamber invoked the ICRP as an ally: Munro quoted its 1990 recommendations
that, “The selection of dose limits necessarily includes social judgements
applied to the many attributes of risk. These judgements would not
necessarily be the same in all contexts and, in particular, might be different
in different societies.”83 Exposure limits could not be universal. Nuclear regulation
of mines, Munro insisted, would impede economic and social development
in the New South Africa. The Chamber, which had been one of the
original architects of racial segregation in South Africa, unblushingly
accused the CNS of being a “white, male organization” with an inadequate
understanding of development challenges.84 This time around, though, the
Chamber’s strategies failed. In 1999, the revised Nuclear Energy Act remade
the CNS into the National Nuclear Regulator and granted it the authority to
monitor radiation in mines. This victory was more legal than practical, but
that is a story for another time.
In Gabon and Madagascar, we saw that nuclearity came in different technopolitical
registers: geological, metallurgical, technological, managerial, and
medical. Nuclearity in one register did not automatically translate into
another. The act, and the consequences, of translation changed over time,
depending not only on the assemblages that constituted regimes of perceptibility,
but also on how the global friction generated by their data shifted (or did not
shift) the boundaries of those regimes.
82 “Draft: South African Energy Policy: Discussion Document: Comment,” 2 Oct. 1995, 1, 11,
Papers of the office of the Assistant Adviser on Safety and Environment, Chamber of Mines,
accessed privately in May 2004, 8.
83 A. H. Munro letter to M. Golding, 2 Mar. 1995, papers of the office of the Assistant Adviser
on Safety and Environment, Chamber of Mines, accessed in May 2004, 5. For the 1990 ICRP recommendations,
see Annals of the ICRP 21, 1–3, esp. pp. 25–32.
84 D. G. Wymer, “Note for the Record: Meeting between the Chamber and Marcel Golding,
Cape Town, 7 June 1995,” 14 June 1995, papers of the office of the Assistant Adviser on Safety
and Environment, Chamber of Mines, accessed in May 2004, 9.
A F R I C A A N D T H E N U C L E A R W O R L D 923
In South Africa, however, the very act of generating perceptibility—any sort
of perceptibility, associated with any sort of nuclearity—was itself a struggle.
Establishing a credible dosimetric regime required, above all, a new perspective
on South Africa’s position in global circuits of knowledge production: it
required the ability to see existing radon surveys as apartheid science, at
odds with the norms and findings of globally-sanctioned practices (however
unsatisfactory those practices themselves may have been). In effect, Guy saw
first the imperceptions that South African data generated as they entered
global circuits, a vision made possible by his own place as a foreign-trained
radiation expert with more invested in trusting the ICRP than in upholding
the technopolitics of South African mining. Constructing regimes of perceptibility
in the mines meant pushing against the apartheid state, and its forms
of capital, via the simultaneous assertion of expertise and of a spatial domain
in which that expertise had authority.
C O N C L U S I O N
Uranium mines were at the technopolitical margins of an industry driven by
claims to exceptionalism. Compared to reactors and bombs they appeared
banal and peripheral, more closely allied, both technologically and geopolitically,
to other forms of mining than to other nuclear things. And indeed,
many aspects of the stories I have told here do resemble the histories
of labor and occupational disease in other mining sectors, such as asbestos
or gold mining.85 In some respects, it was precisely the commonplace
nature of illegibility and secrecy that enabled radiation exposures to pass
unnoticed or unintelligible, whether to global experts or to mineworkers
themselves. Uranium mines had to be made nuclear—they were not born
that way. Turning that nuclearity into forms of politically usable nuclear
exceptionalism required material, discursive, technopolitical, global, and
So the nuclear world in Africa emerged slowly, jaggedly, from frictions
between the transnational politics of global knowledge production and the
rule and remains of (post)colonial difference. As a form of power distributed
in things and inscribed in bodies, nuclearity could make itself felt through
absence as well as presence. Radiation did not, by itself, make uranium
mining into nuclear work. It had to be made perceptible and allied to
human agency. If such perceptibility and alliances marshaled nuclear exceptionalism
effectively, radiation could serve as a mechanism for forming,
maintaining, or disrupting power relationships. Dosimetric mastery thus
empowered French radiation protection specialists, both in French mines
85 For one example among many, see Jock McCulloch, Asbestos Blues: Labour, Capital, Physicians
& the State in South Africa (James Currey, 2002).
924 G A B R I E L L E H E C H T
and in dominant circuits of global knowledge production. In Madagascar,
however, dosimetry filtered through other experts; it became little more
than a short-term tool for making labor decisions and exerting power over
colonial subjects. For Malagasy mineworkers, radiation remained a mysterious
residue. Their work never became nuclear; their exposures never
served as a resource for postcolonial claims-making. By contrast, Gabonese
miners eventually found ways to claim nuclear exceptionalism for themselves,
to represent their exposures as the distinctive consequence of globally
known hazards and as (post)colonial injustice, and therefore as politically
accountable in global circuits. South African mines show that dosimetry,
while not sufficient, was nevertheless necessary to the production of
nuclearity. Its long absence rendered radiation exposure utterly invisible
to mineworkers, a form of colonial violence they did not know they had
Juxtaposing these various histories illuminates not just the uneven spatial
distribution of nuclearity, but also its uneven temporalities. There was no
moment in global time when the nuclearity of uranium mines became settled
and forever mandated. Differences among places had to do with time as well
as space, with temporal frictions between mine closures, transnational activism,
global knowledge production, capital flows, postcolonial politics, the collapse
of apartheid, and more. These spatio-temporal juxtapositions, in turn, bring into
focus the double edge of governmentality. Dosimeters established forms of legibility
whose first and sometimes only effect—for workers—was discipline.
Records also carried within them the potential to discipline mine operators:
hence managers’ resistance to making, keeping, and revealing them. But that
potential required the spatio-temporal extension of perceptibilities to gain
momentum and become usable.
Meanwhile, the imperceptions produced by technopolitical marginality continued
to ricochet around global circuits, gaining traction not by conspiracy but
simply through the normal processes of transnational science. In the early
1990s, for example, an international group of experts conducted a massive
re-analysis of data from the eleven existing studies of radon and lung cancer
risk, which covered underground miners in Australia, Canada, China, Czechoslovakia,
France, Sweden, and the United States. African exposures could not
be reanalyzed, because they had never existed as data in the first place.86 And
so the stakes of Africa’s absences from the nuclear world accumulate, both
within and outside the continent.
The view from the margins challenges the ontological certainties of the
center. We can readily make this point from a scholarly perspective. But
making such challenges stick in the practices of the messy world requires
86 Jay H. Lubin et al., “Radon and Lung Cancer Risk: A Joint Analysis of 11 Underground
Miners Studies,” NIH report 94-3644 (National Institutes of Health, 1994).
A F R I C A A N D T H E N U C L E A R W O R L D 925
continuous work—as Gabonese mineworker advocates, South African nuclear
regulators, and others have discovered. In the uranium boom currently in
progress all over the African continent, mine operators and state officials,
invoking the “social judgments” such as those written into ICRP texts on
exposure limits and cited by the South African Chamber of Mines in the
1990s, pit the immediate urgency of “development” against the long-term
uncertainties of exposure. The struggle to see Africa in the nuclear world,
and the nuclear world in Africa, continues.
926 G A B R I E L L E H E C H T ORDER THIS ESSAY HERE NOW AND GET A DISCOUNT !!!
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