To understand the consequences of global uranium trade in Africa, the intricate interaction between political lobbying, government and human interests must be explored, said Gabrielle Hecht, professor of history at the University of Michigan, in a lecture hosted by the science and technology studies program Thursday.
The presentation — held in Smith-Buonanno 106 — was part of the program's lecture series "Nothing Can Go Wrong: Rethinking Nuclear Energy in the 21st Century" and introduced themes from Hecht's forthcoming book, "Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade."
Hecht introduced the question of what "nuclear" means today. There is still a tendency to refer to nuclear energy from a perspective of "nuclear exceptionalism," she said, an expression that comes from World War II, when nuclear weapons were presented as the ultimate and decisive solution to ending the war. Hecht emphasized the importance of defining "nuclear" not only through its positive definition, but as a global concept — a source of energy as well as a potential source of trafficking and health concerns.
There is a popular belief that uranium in Africa is directly linked to bomb production in Iraq, Hecht said, adding that Africa is still considered "the dark mysterious continent." Her research and book sheds light on the history of the uranium market.
From her visits to mines in Gabon to her expertise on Niger and French activities in the region, Hecht said the consequences of uranium extraction in mines have to be examined from a variety of angles. She said the topic should be examined from historical, geographical and political perspectives and also addressed as "an epistemology question — how do we know what we know?"
Hecht said she talked directly with miners affected by long exposure to dust from Gabon uranium mines as part of her research. One miner exhibited respiratory symptoms and fatigue from his work in the mines, she said, adding that there is no official government record documenting this problem.
She has also focused part of her research on Rossing Uranium Mine in Namibia, which can be seen as "the most controversial mine in this world," she said. And the problem is far from being solved, she added.
"The most difficult part for the victims of uranium exposure is to prove that their symptoms are directly related to the work they were doing in those mines," Hecht said. Due to this difficulty, workers do not receive any compensation.
Hecht also discussed the political implications linked to uranium extraction.
"Since 2004, the uranium mine number exploded in Namibia," Hecht said. Problems that stem from uranium extraction are directly related to human behaviors, industrial interests and political lobbying. Since the creation of the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1957, the definition of uranium has changed several times, leading to changes in the regulation of its production.
"In 1972, uranium (was) officially excluded from the list of nuclear material from the (energy agency) after South Africa actively lobbied for its exclusion," Hecht said. This change led to growing extraction of uranium due to reduced regulations.