Global Atomic Inequalities: Marginal Work in the Nuclear Sector

Thursday, July 17, 2014: 10:50 AM
Room: Booth 44
Oral Presentation
Gabrielle HECHT , University of Michigan, MI
This paper takes the aftermath of the Fukushima accidents as the starting point for an exploration of work and workers commonly considered marginal to nuclear systems. The paper seeks to make visible labor that – by virtue of its unexciting nature or (apparently) peripheral location – often remains hidden in our accounts of technoscientific work: ordinary maintenance, African mining.

It begins with the contract workers hired to “clean up” the Fukushima meltdowns, then move back in time and across oceans, to consider the subcontractors hired to conduct ordinary reactor maintenance and refueling in Japan, France, and elsewhere. Maintenance is the unseen, decidedly unspectacular work essential to keep any technological assemblage working—work so invisible and unglamorous that most scholars avoid studying it, preferring instead to focus on acts of creation and construction. Yet without these workers, sociotechnical systems could not function: they may be socially marginal, but they are technopolitically central to the production of nuclear power (and all other industries).

In nuclear and other systems, subcontracting has consequences for occupational health, as well as for transnational knowledge production (about the effects of low-level radiation exposure in the nuclear case). Contemplating these consequences, in turn, takes us to another apparently peripheral part of the global nuclear industry: uranium production. After a quick comparative consideration of knowledge production about the dangers of radon exposure in mines, the paper discusses uranium mining in Gabon. It examines labor and occupational hazards there, including the efforts of Gabonese mineworkers to make themselves and their illnesses visible on the global technoscientific stage.