Why uranium mines?
As we ponder nuclear matters, the yellow ore is perhaps one of the last things to be associated with atomic power. Like most products, in the image of the proverbial sausage, we often fail to consider the process and the origin of production materials. In our case, the mushroom cloud and the reactor have become such iconic images associates with nuclearism that the question of fueling the circuit that sustains them comes undone under the brush of association.1
Yet, uranium extraction matters in many senses of the term: it has a value upon which an entire global market was built and consolidated between the 1950s and 1970s; it gives substance to a largely hidden and therefore dematerialized whose primary beneficiaries want us to believe that nuclear energy is somehow magically clean; and it assigns worth to people and landscapes in the process of extraction and conversion.
Before it was coveted as a central source of fuel for nuclear reactors and atomic bombs, however, uranium in the United States, as Traci Brynne Voyles writes in Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country (2015), was considered a waste byproduct in the extraction of vanadium, a mineral used in the confection of metal parts used to build cars, most famously that of the Ford T. It was not until its radioactive properties were understood and put to work in the elaboration of atomic weapons during the mid-1940s that the ore dramatically increased in value.2
To consider this passage from waste to valuable, then, also obliges us to consider the colonial and racial entanglements of nuclearism. As Voyles further argues, extractivism is always embedded within settler colonial logics that represent certain landscapes as empty, inhospitable, uninhabited, and worthless: “colonial epistemologies do not just look on deserts as wastelands,” she writes. Through racial and spatial politics, “landscapes of many kinds […] render certain bodies and landscapes pollutable” — a discursive process with very material consequences which she terms wastelanding (10).
The value of uranium, then, comes to devalue Indigenous lands, bodies, and knowledges in the pursuit of atomic power. Wastelanding, in that sense, is multiscalar: “in uranium country, destroying the environment through uranium mining does not just mean destroying the nonhuman world and ecosystems” writes Voyles. It also means “to render pollutable, the lungs, the cells, and the respiratory tracts of everyone involved in the nuclear cycle” as well as “[Indigenous] worldviews, epistemology, history, and cultural and religious practices.” For uranium mining to occur on the scale that it does, “indigenous ways of knowing landscapes and their worth must be themselves rendered pollutable, marginal, unimportant” (11).
Kathryn Yusoff, in A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (2019), echoes this emphasis on geologic racialization, noting that categories such as “the human” and “the inhuman” have historically been produced through a discourse of settler-colonial rights on the one hand, and material practices of extraction on the other. Who counts as human and who doesn’t as categories of “matter” in both senses of the word therefore hinges upon a “spatial execution, of place, land, and person cut from relation through geographic displacement (and relocation through forced settlement and transatlantic slavery).” Racialization, in other words, “belongs to a material categorization of the division of matter (corporeal and mineralogical) into active and inert” — a “historic [mode] of geopolitical mattering” which maintains “unequal relations of power through continued environmental exposures” (page).
Uranium extraction, then, relies upon, and extends, colonial and racial mattering of people and land. Winona LaDuke and Ward Churchill, in their piece “Native America: The Political Economy of Radioactive Colonialism” (1985), remind us how the 1934 American “Indian Reorganization Act” imposed a “tribal council government” to replace traditional governmental systems, forcibly tasking Indigenous nations within the United States to produce economic plans for the resources on their land in the form of mineral, water, and agricultural leases requiring the direct approval of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (109). The effects, they insist, were immediate: whereas in 1940, 58% of Diné/Navajo people earned a living from stock raising, wool making, and agriculture, this number dropped to 10% by 1958, increasing the unemployment rate in Navajo country to 65% by the 1970s (110).
Encouraged by the federal government, these neocolonial and impoverishing tactics thus pushed the Navajo nation to lease its land to various extractive corporations surfing on the booming uranium business like Kerr-McGee and United Nuclear (113-114). Yet, the employment opportunities remained dangerous and largely underpaid for Diné workers while the hundreds of mines and mills built across the territory, especially near communities, were responsible for radio-induced diseases and even one of the worst ongoing radioactive accident in U.S. history: the 1979 Church Rock spill.
The Navajo nation’s situation, the result of economic and colonial dependency, as LaDuke and Churchill insist, is by no means unique: the Black Hills region of the Lakota territory has been exposed to the same settler colonial tactics and environmental racism (115). Likewise, Great Bear Lake on Dené land, within Canada, has been drawn within the uranium settler colonial circuit — one that was directly linked to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.3
While uranium mining in North America has largely responded to the settler colonial context inherent to the United States and Canada, other exploitations managed by colonial powers, particularly France, have had to adapt to political changes induced by independence movements and historical movements in the wake of World War II.
Indeed, the twin event of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which brought an abrupt and horrific end to the war, changed the rules of geopolitical influence: atomic power, rather than empire, became the new marker of prestige and power in a geopolitical moment increasingly tensed by the Cold War. As decolonization accelerated throughout the world and superpowers expanded their monopoly over enriched uranium and atomic secrets, France was faced with a critical choice: either disappearing under the American nuclear umbrella, thereby losing its autonomy; or develop its own nuclear strike as well as its own supply chain and technologies.
The first choice, perceived as a form of dangerous American imperialism, would quickly be dismissed. In 1945, a few months after the end of WWII, Charles de Gaulle, then leader of the French transitory government, supported the creation of the CEA (Commissariat à l’Énergie Atomique, or Atomic Energy Comission) in 1945 — an independent governmental organization whose primary mission was the development of France atomic circuit, ranging from scientific and military research to building nuclear reactors, to uranium mine prospection and extraction (Vaïsse 42-43). It is in this context that uranium mining in Africa began, starting in the central and southern parts of Madagascar before quickly spreading to Gabon and Niger where today’s sizable portion of French uranium production originates from.4
The decolonial movements that emerged after the war, however, strongly complicated the future of these operations: what would become of France’s uranium supplies if the territories from which they were extracted became independent?
As Gabrielle Hecht demonstrates in her inquiry into uranium mining and trade in Africa, Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade (2012), the matter was carefully negotiated by France and the leaders of these newly independent nations: “In negotiating the terms of decolonization,” she writes, “France signed a series of defense and raw materials accords with Gabon, Niger, and other newly independent African nations. These treaties gave the former colonizer privileged access to uranium and other strategic raw materials, prohibiting exports that ran counter to French military interests. For African leaders, the tradeoff gave them military security, guaranteed product markets, and offered development aid.” This quid pro quo at the heart of Françafrique, Hecht insists, was clear: “Many of the treaties had a secret appendix that signaled the limits of independence: France would help defend the new leaders not only against external threats, but also against coups d’état” (109).
Uranium, in other words, became a powerful leverage that not only rested upon an imperial organization of the world split between a “modern” and industrialized “center” and resource-producing “periphery,” but also on (post)colonial pressures maintained by what Hecht describes as a “uranium cartel” led by nations such as Canada, Australia, France, and apartheid South Africa, bent on regulating the market and banalizing (denuclearizing) uranium so as to maximize their monopoly (55-61)
Although the U.N. adopted the New International Economic Order (NIEO) in April 1974, asserting the full and permanent sovereignty of newly independent nations over their natural resources and economic activities, colonial and racial entanglements remain a constant of uranium extraction (80). If uranium mines in the metropole (all closed since 2001) were subjected to strict labor and safety conditions to protect the lives of those who work in them, the same rules and laws do not apply French-owned mines located in Niger or Gabon.
1. Evidently, we must insist that uranium is not the only mineral necessary to the atomic circuit. It also is not always pure and is, at times, blended with other minerals from which it must be separated. In many of the archival documents that were perused for this project, this differentiation was not always made, making a straightforward understanding of this topic necessarily biased and always incomplete.
2. Atomic bombs were not the sole usage for radioactive materials. However, the demands in uranium increased tremendously in the post-World War II era precisely because of their development.
3. See, in particular, Peter C. Van Wyck, The Highway of the Atom (2010).
4. Gabrielle Hecht (2012) explains how the inception of the “Red Book” in 1965, jointly created by the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), further depoliticized uranium by making widely available projections of uranium reserves organized by country. This method further replicated imperial conditions since only the nationality of the company, rather than the country in which these extractions took place, was accounted for, leading France to provide data for Gabon and Madagascar, for example (63-64).
Voyles, Tracy Brynne. Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country. University of Minnesota Press, 2015.
Hecht, Gabrielle. Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade. MIT Press, 2012.
Vaïsse, Maurice. “Le choix atomique de la France (1945-1958).” La France et l’atome : Études d’histoire nucléaire, edited by Maurice Vaïsse. Bruylant: 1994.