By Mary Reynolds
The Anthropocene, or our so-called current geological epoch, has penned itself pervasively and permanently in our earth, in all of us. Our human exceptionalism has torn from us our essentialism – our humanism itself, lost to hubris. The mining and proliferation of uranium and nuclear power is a prime example, if not exhibitor, of our avarice at the stake of our common home, our very survival. I also work to prove that the effects being suffered from anthropogenic phenomena, such as climate change, and global warming-induced sea-level rise, increased temperatures, and biodiversity loss, have not come about universally, as attitudes of species thinking may suggest. The progression of our impact on the planet has been unequal, and disproportionate in terms of responsibility, and now, differential vulnerability to the effects. This division has been racial, financial, and benefiting a historically white, male population. The case of uranium is no different, the mining and extractive processes burdening the ‘Global South,’ while the monetary surpluses go to the ‘Global North’ and the capitalist cycles of exploitation and oppression continue throughout the product’s lifetime, and beyond, a pattern of inequity. Thusly, as will be expanded upon in this paper, uranium and its many forms have made
Reynolds such an indelible and expansive impact on the planet and on bodies that it is a rightful object to signify the Anthropocene.
Uranium is firstly exploitative in its extraction process, where mining practices hollow the land and input chemical waste in tailings in the region being mined. Nearly a fifth of the world’s uranium is mined in African countries.1 Through its dynamics from the African mines into the “circuits of the global economy, uranium shapes ecologies of health and geopolitical relationships alike,” not only as an in situ presence but an inherently global one. As Gabrielle Hecht states, there are “…flows of manufactured stuff; there are flows of raw material; there are flows of people as well. The fact that all this stuff keeps getting cheaper and cheaper means that the exploitation keeps getting more and more intense.” The evidence of this “cheapening” marked itself in the very land being mined, where there were “many instances of substantial radon build-up in working shafts, some reaching ten times international recommendations for dose limits.” It also was evident in the bodies of the miners, particularly in South Africa, the black bodies, “Urinalyses confirmed ‘cases of high contamination’ in which workers were somehow ingesting uranium…But the highest uranium counts of all were recorded in ‘natives’ (i.e., black workers).” Though, during the era of apartheid, these conclusions were ignored, blaming black workers’ “personal cleanliness” as the problem, not the uranium mining, continuing a pattern of invisibility to communities of color, at the expense of their livelihoods, to continue generating profit for the Western world with no accountability.
What should not be amiss is the racialization of uranium and its transformations throughout its lifetime. The degradation of the land through mining has left an indelible mark on black African bodies. As Gabrielle Hecht argues, we must integrate an aspect of pluralism to our discussion of the Anthropocene, including multiple ‘cenes’ and narratives, such as African Anthropocenes or a Racial Anthropocene. In her Roundtable discussion, Hecht pointed to gold mining in South Africa c. 1886, where “hundreds of thousands of African men” were conscripted to work in the Rand, which was thusly hollowed through the extraction of thousands of “tons of uranium…leaving tailings pits.” She argued that this waste-making on such a pervasive scale is “central to the Anthropocene,” as a form of “planetary reversal,” or “turning our planet inside out.” Additionally, this waste-making impacted the bodies of the miners, as Hecht states, “…the Anthropocene was…etching itself into the lungs of generation after generation of young African men.” Evidently, the harm exists in only some bodies, some regions, and some timescopes, pointing to the inherent racialization within the Anthropocene, and how uranium serves as a catalyst for the disproportionate impacts that characterize our epoch.
In terms of nuclear energy, uranium has been expansive in proliferation globally, especially as countries attempt to reduce reliance on fossil fuel energy sources. This proliferation has led to the establishment of “…around 450 commercial reactors today that provide 390 GW electricity in 31 countries,” in which about 16 percent of the world’s electricity is produced. While in terms of cost, nuclear energy proves more efficient, with the average cost of electricity (2015) from nuclear is about $26/MWh, contrasting costs produced from coal being $37/MWh and from natural gas being $33/MWh, “it is important to note that the externalities (pollution and waste) associated with each source is not reflected in these values.”Without including these externality costs, the labor and lives put into extraction is cheapened, or degraded and devalued, as is the landscape. Laura Pulido discusses this inequality, citing the “exploitation of group differentiated vulnerabilities to premature deaths in distinct, yet densely interconnected political geographies.”The Global North’s use of resources out of capitalist economic self-interest perpetuates indifference, causing people (people of color) to lose their “lands, lives, and livelihoods” in the Anthropocene “because they simply do not matter.”
The longevity of uranium is another issue that makes it an identifiable marker of our current epoch, as the half-lives of uranium can persist for hundreds of thousands to even millions of years. Storing spent-fuel becomes another challenge in the use of nuclear power, “After 10 to 20 years in the cooling pools, the plant owners move the older fuel into “dry cask” storage. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission asserts that the spent fuel pool and the dry cask storage are sufficient for public health and safety.” However, with the lifespan of uranium waste and its radioactive properties, how long this storage will be ‘sufficient,’ and what will happen when it is not anymore is unknown. This waste will outlive generations of human beings, so what will its effects be?
Nuclear accidents such as those at Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Love Canal evidence the pervasive nature of uranium, toxifying the surrounding areas with radioactive residue for generations. What can be gleaned from this is also the crisis of nuclear and climate change refugees. As Stephanie Malin writes, “…one of its most distinctive features [of uranium] is radiation. The fallout (both literal and figurative) from international nuclear weapons testing, nuclear energy and nuclear disasters are embedded in our environment, but also in our society.” One of the biggest risks with nuclear power is a plant meltdown, such as the aforementioned cases. In the case of Fukushima, it was not only a national disaster but a “global disaster” affecting the entire Pacific with radiation, provoking the question, “who has the ability or authority to respond” to such disasters. Evidently, the detriment of nuclear power acts as what Jason Moore could pen a cheapening agent, degrading and cheapening the land, labor, energy, and lives, as those designated to perform nuclear labor are subjected to radiation. Katsumata Susumu’s Deep Sea Fish evidences the effects of working in a nuclear power plant vividly, “‘If radiation had color, we would look like we have smallpox.’ ‘I’ve been working here for three years. I’d be black as a crow.’” The comic highlights the realities of working in proximity to such harmful substances, noting the radiation dosages the workers had, the minimal compensation for “hazard pay,” and the fearful conditions temporary laborers worked under. Uranium is dangerous beyond extraction, and even beyond its usage, marking itself in the bodies of workers and into the geology of landscapes. Again, Malin states, “As we try to understand the meaning of our atomic era, we are beginning to realise that the social and cultural impacts of nuclear technology have not only defined a new geological era, but will eventually determine the vulnerability or resilience of our human world.”
In relation to the “object,” portion of this project, I chose a poster from the South African Student Union. The poster depicts colonial histories with a caricature of Lord Carrington, mining equipment, and black bodies miniaturized in comparison, narrating imperial contexts of the extractive processes, and where the effects go: to Africa, while the ‘developed world’ reaps the benefits. The parallels of student activism in political and environmental battles is striking to contemporary times. As a student of environmental studies myself, I feel the urgency in the image, the desperation, and the struggle to put out a message as someone without conventional power on a global scale. This is evidence of grassroots activism, people power, and individuals fighting back against injustice, which is persistent in modern years, especially in the U.S., where the administration lacks any semblance of political will towards taking measures to mitigate or adapt to climate change. What is also imperative in the association with this poster, is the importance of narrative and storytelling, and whose voice possesses the agency to do so. The poster itself serves as a primary source documenting uranium mining and its disproportionate effects on African bodies for the benefit of the Global North’s capitalist energy ventures. There is a necessity in interacting with this piece in its historicized contexts of colonialism, British imperial oppression, and the continuity of exploiting bodies of color for the profit of white bodies. Additionally, the grassroots level of the poster’s creation allude to the necessity of multiple perspectives on issues that pertain to our world as a whole, rather than a universalizing “we,” as the root of all global problems, assessing who that “we” is in terms of responsibility and vulnerability is an unequivocal step towards assessing how to solve these issues. In this case, and in many others, the responsibility falls to developed, wealthy countries, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, etc., disproportionately white and affluent, relative to those demographics suffering the brunt of climate change’s vile impacts, which are mostly people of color, lesser developed, and of lower economic standing.
With uranium, there are myriad risks: nuclear weapons proliferation, nuclear power plant meltdowns, nuclear waste storage leakage, explosions, diseases from radiation and mining, and the inconceivable lifetime of uranium. Though, what best articulates uranium as the object to define the Anthropocene is its inequity of effects. The inherent racism stemming from imperial processes subjects people of color to the worst effects, propelling differential vulnerabilities into disproportionate levels of environmental quality. As we progress deeper into the bloody maw of this epoch, these inequalities ascertain who will live and who will die, who can adapt, whose stories matter, whose lives matter, and how the prioritization of economic growth often outweighs the human health and environmental costs. In addressing uranium as an object to define the Anthropocene, I hope to have argued the complexity of this element, as a dynamic force, an indelible marker of human avarice at the sacrifice of our ecologies, and even our humanity.
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