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Tom Zoellner, former Arizona Republic reporter and author of The Heartless Stone: A Journey Through the World of Diamonds, Deceit and Desire, has a new book: Uranium: War, Energy and the Rock That Reshaped the World. The story weaves together tales of physicists, Nazis and African warlords as it explores the history of the radioactive element. Zoellner, who grew up in Tucson and now lives in Hanover, N.H., will make two appearances during the Tucson Festival of Books: A panel on international reporting, at 1 p.m., Saturday, March 14, at the UA's main bookstore; and a panel on the great unwritten Arizona novel at the Integrated Learning Center, Room 141, at 10 a.m., Sunday, March 15. Visit Zoellner's Web site for more information.

What inspired you to look into the history of uranium?

Two things: No. 1, growing up in a city that was ringed by Titan II missile silos and being aware that if there was a crisis with the Soviets, annihilation could come very suddenly. ... The second thing was spending time in the deserts of Southern Utah and coming across remnants of a frenzied rush from the 1950s--the last mineral rush in the American West. Holes had been drilled in the side of a mesa near a place called Temple Mountain. At first, I thought they were caves, but it turned out that these were actually mines that had been propped up with timber.

How did that start the wheels turning for you?

Well, what a paradox. The otherworldly landscape of the Red Rock country of Southern Utah holds a radioactive treasure. I realized I knew very little about this substance that had such an impact on my childhood and had shaped the world in profound ways. It vaulted the United States to the top of the geopolitical world order after World War II and helped define diplomacy. It continues to have a marked effect in how we conduct ourselves, particularly toward Iraq.

You ended up exploring whether Saddam Hussein was really pursuing yellowcake in Niger, as the Bush administration asserted.

The idea that anyone could have purchased a useful quantity of uranium in this area is patently absurd. ... I almost got kidnapped in Niger. The bus I was riding on got very close to being hijacked. What I learned is that the uranium fields in Niger are in terribly unstable territory, and the government does not have control of an area called the Uranium Highway that carries 8 percent of the world's supply of uranium.

Just how hard is it to make an atomic bomb?

The hardest part of making an atomic bomb is enriching the uranium, which means separating an isotope called U-235 out from the common isotope that surrounds it. If you can do that and create uranium that's more than 20 percent U-235, building an atomic bomb is actually quite easy.

Where did you travel in your research for the book?

I went to 12 different countries. One I'd highlight is a nation that used to be called Zaire, which is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. The really fascinating historical irony there is that the mines from which we gained most of the material that built the weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are sort of like a bleeding corpse. It's still rich in uranium, and some of it is leaving illegally, and nobody knows where it's going.

And you bring it home with the history of uranium here in the American Southwest.

Arizona, Utah and the Navajo Nation played a central role during the frenzy of the arms race, when gaining control of uranium was a national-security imperative. That area is still rich in uranium, and if we decide as a nation that we're going to rely more on nuclear power as a solution to global warming, are we again to engage in what was a deadly activity? My book documents how thousands of miners ... were exposed to deadly radon gas in those mines with the knowledge of the federal government.

How do you see the future of nuclear energy in the United States?

We're getting a signal from the Obama administration that we're going to take a turn away from nuclear power. The stimulus package that was just signed into law has nothing in there--no loan guarantees--for nuclear power plants, and the free market will not support it at present.

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