The Misrepresentation of Nuclear Things

31 Jan
Front cover of Metro, Wednesday, January 28, 2015.

Front cover of Metro, Wednesday, January 28, 2015.

This post was inspired the coincidence of two things, one good, one depressingly bad. Firstly, I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading Gabrielle Hecht’s excellent article ‘The Power of Nuclear Things‘ (the article kindly and conveniently made available to all on Prof. Hecht’s personal website).[1] Secondly, I most certainly did not enjoy the sight of free newsheet Metro’s front page on Wednesday January 28 (see image to the right).

It’s not often you get to bring together the work of an esteemed scholar and the comment-baiting scare quotes of a – let’s not mince words here – paper that is down-market of the Daily Mail (if such a thing is possible).[2] That being said, I would suggest that Hecht’s analysis (more on that below) offers us a useful critical framework for understanding this faintly ridiculous front page.

In ‘The Power of Nuclear Things’, Hecht analyses the role of the ‘uranium yellowcake from Africa’ paradigm as a significant component of the build up to the Second Gulf War. Hecht argues that the ‘uranium from Africa’ meme relies on three main assumptions:

1) the fear of nuclear weapons, and the assumption that acquiring “uranium” is tantamount to building an atomic bomb;

2) the fear of “Africa” as a dark, corrupt continent, and the assumption that actions there are ultimately unknowable or incomprehensible;

3) the fear of any nuclear materials not within direct Western control, and the assumption that the difference between licit and illicit nuclear trade is clear-cut.[3]

For Hecht, a “nuclear thing” is an object or paradigm that has implicit and explicit associations with nuclear weapons and the fear of nuclear warfare or proliferation. Furthermore, these “nuclear things” fit into various global/international power structures and assumptions about same. ‘Uranium from Africa’, Hecht contends, was enough of a “nuclear thing” to at least partially justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.[4]

Considering the headline ‘Thousands put at risk by Putin nuclear attack’, we can see how Polonium 210 is a “nuclear thing” (in this instance) indivisible from nuclear weapons. It’s interesting that the entire headline is put in ‘scare quotes’, rather than just the ‘nuclear attack’ fragment. Therefore, we don’t see ‘nuclear attack’ as a euphemism or hyperbolic overstatement sitting on its own, but that it is a ‘nuclear attack’ in the same way that Hiroshima or Nagasaki was a ‘nuclear attack’. Coupled with the vague number ‘thousands’, there’s an implicit connection made between the assassination of Litvinenko and actual nuclear warfare.

The poisoning of Litvinenko is thus conflated in the public mind with nuclear warfare of the kind visualised in many popular cultural forms. At a time when Putin is taking aggressive action in the Ukraine, offering serious challenges to Western European political, military, and economic institutions, and has gained the dubious distinction of being the Global North’s No.1 bogeyman, this makes for a scare quote of the scariest kind.

Going back to Hecht’s three assumptions about ‘uranium from Africa’, we can modify these to fit the Litvinenko case and the Metro’s front page panic-mongering:

1) There is the fear of nuclear weapons and the co-option of that fear into the assumption that the Polonium 210 poisoning is tantamount to a nuclear attack.

2) The fear of Putin’s Russia as corrupt, dark, and sinister, with obscure and unknowable motivations for its actions.

3) The fear of nuclear materials being used in the West that exist outside of Western control.

This mapping of Hecht’s analysis onto the Metro front page is by no means perfect, and I’m willing to admit that I probably do her article a dis-service by boiling it down so much.However, I do feel that – as minor as it may seem – the ‘Putin nuclear attack’ headline taps into the same fears as the 2003 ‘uranium from Africa’ paradigm. It fits into a continuum of nuclear fear stretching back to Hiroshima by willfully conflating two quite different instances of the use of nuclear materials. It serves to further strengthen the image of Vladimir Putin as dangerous – even deranged – super-villain, intent on using his “nuclear things” to terrify and destroy both his opponents and the West.[5]


[1] Gabrielle Hecht, ‘The Power of Nuclear Things’, Technology and Culture, 51 (Jan., 2010), 1-30.

[2] I make no secret of, nor apologise for, my dislike of the Daily Mail and all it stands for. Scholarly objectivity be damned.

[3] Hecht, 2.

[4] It’s also interesting how this ties in to my own research. The ‘yellowcake from Africa’ paradigm was a component of the original ‘Islamic bomb’ scare in 1979-80. For more on the ‘islamic bomb’, see this post about teaching the history of the ‘Islamic bomb’ and this post about a discussion between Margaret Thatcher and Menachem Begin over that very issue.

[5] It should be obvious that I’m not for a moment defending Putin here. If ever there was a leader who left himself open to depiction as a stereotypical Bond villain, it’s the Kremlin’s current top man. It’s but a short hop from poisoning your enemies to bragging about your orbital laser battery.


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