Field Notes from a Nuclear Nerd via Toxic News

Professor Gabrielle Hecht is based at the Department of History at the University of Michigan, where she has also directed the Program in Science, Technology, and Society. She has authored several award winning books about ‘nuclear things’.

My obsession with nuclear things began as a teenager. In 1978, my family moved to Zurich, where for two years we rented a suburban home. Following Swiss law, the house had its own fallout shelter in the basement, complete with a thick lead door. We never talked about this room, any more than we talked about the rifle that my father kept in the attic, issued to him as a member of the Swiss army reserve. Both reflected the fears of a landlocked nation. Squeezed between the shelter and the rifle, surrounded by mountains, I sometimes found it difficult to breathe.


Fast-forward to 1989, my fourth year of graduate school. Two months before the Berlin wall began to crumble, I found myself back in Paris, finally about to research the nuclear world on my own terms. Well, almost. I’d initially wanted to write about weapons, but soon learned that was archivally impossible. But my project on the history of French nuclear power offered a back door. France’s civilian and military programs were intermeshed. Yet the myth of their separation was just — barely — strong enough as to make the civilian program researchable.

Emphasis on “barely.” Official archives were closed. France had a “dérogation” system by which researchers could request permission to consult documents. But that avenue was closed off to me: “We deeply regret, mademoiselle, that we have not yet catalogued our papers.” You can’t apply for permission to consult documents that don’t even appear in finding aids.


Not everyone was so open. Several of my interlocutors scolded me for focusing on the wrong topic. Some told blatant lies. There had never been any conflict among French nuclear institutions, insisted one pair. Another maintained that EDF had never produced weapons-grade plutonium, an assertion directly contradicted by documents and other interlocutors. One retiree tried to ask me out (that was creepy — I was 24). But the vast majority of my interlocutors spoke in good faith, summoning memories as best they could, sharing whatever documents they had. Whatever you think about the industry as a whole, remember that most of its people are just like you: they work hard, recognize their responsibilities, and honestly believe they’re doing the right thing. Although I did not hold back on unpleasant facts, I tried to convey this sense in The Radiance of France. Perhaps that’s one reason why it was well received in French nuclear circles.


In my second project, I sought other ways into such material. My initial goal was to rethink the “nuclear age” from a colonial and postcolonial perspective by examining the history of uranium production. I knew official archives would not bring much joy, but I had to try. French archives yielded little. By contrast, Britain’s National Archives hold an enormous collection of uranium-related files, most of it readily accessible. Yet these documents said little about many of the things I cared about – labour, worker health, African perspectives.


Over the course of many years, I visited mine sites in Gabon, Madagascar, South Africa, and Namibia. I interviewed workers, managers, engineers, doctors, and residents. I went underground into mine shafts and rode in the enormous haul trucks at open pits. I plugged my ears as I witnessed giant ore crushers, and tried to remain unfazed when acid fumes attacked my sinuses in yellowcake plants. I wandered through company towns, talked with people in their homes. I dug through closets and file cabinets and storage rooms in search of documentation. I offer a fuller account of this process in the appendix to Being Nuclear. Here, I limit myself to a few remarks about conducting research in Gabon and Namibia.


“National security” is the mantra of the nuclear age, secrecy its reflex. In many places, it’s impossible to write nuclear history without finding back doors. Once you do, nothing quite matches the thrill of finding a document stamped “secret.”

Yet we must always remember that archives – formal or not – are replete with silences. These stem as much from choices about what to preserve as from overt classification. Also: documents do not offer an unmediated window on events. In this respect, they resemble interviews. Both types of sources are products of their times and circumstances. Both make certain events visible while leaving others invisible. They are generated for particular audiences, and the stakes, spins, and nuances of their narratives are frequently difficult to discern.

Read more at Field Notes from a Nuclear Nerd

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