|David Charles Hahn|
October 30, 1976|
Commerce Township, MI
|Died||September 27, 2016
Shelby Township, MI
|Education||Macomb Community College|
|Known for||Attempting to build a nuclear reactor in his backyard at the age of 17|
David Charles Hahn (born October 30, 1976, died September 27, 2016), also called the "Radioactive Boy Scout" or the "Nuclear Boy Scout", was an American who attempted to build a homemade breeder nuclear reactor in 1994, at age 17. A Scout in the Boy Scouts of America, Hahn conducted his experiments in secret in a backyard shed at his mother's house in Commerce Township, Michigan. While his reactor never reached critical mass, Hahn attracted the attention of local police when he was stopped on another matter and they found material in his vehicle that troubled them and he warned that it was radioactive. His mother's property was cleaned up by the Environmental Protection Agency ten months later as a Superfund cleanup site. Hahn attained Eagle Scout rank shortly after his lab was dismantled.
While the incident was not widely publicized initially, it became better known following a 1998 Harper's article by journalist Ken Silverstein. Hahn was also the subject of Silverstein's 2004 book, The Radioactive Boy Scout.
Creation of the reactor
Hahn was a Boy Scout who was fascinated by chemistry and spent years conducting amateur chemistry experiments, which sometimes resulted in small explosions and other mishaps. He was inspired in part by reading The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments, and tried to collect samples of every element in the periodic table, including the radioactive ones. He later received a merit badge in Atomic Energy and became fascinated with the idea of creating a breeder reactor in his home. Hahn diligently amassed this radioactive material by collecting small amounts from household products, such as americium from smoke detectors, thorium from camping lantern mantles, radium from clocks and tritium (a neutron moderator) from gunsights. His "reactor" was a bored-out block of lead, and he used lithium from $1,000 worth of purchased batteries to purify the thorium ash using a Bunsen burner.
Hahn posed as an adult scientist or high school teacher to gain the trust of many professionals in letters, despite the presence of misspellings and obvious errors in his letters to them. Hahn ultimately hoped to create a breeder reactor, using low-level isotopes to transform samples of thorium and uranium into fissionable isotopes.
Although his homemade reactor never came anywhere near reaching critical mass, it ended up emitting dangerous levels of radiation, likely well over 1,000 times normal background radiation. Alarmed, Hahn began to dismantle his experiments, but a chance encounter with police led to the discovery of his activities, which triggered a Federal Radiological Emergency Response involving the FBI and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. On June 26, 1995 the United States Environmental Protection Agency, having designated Hahn's mother's property a Superfund hazardous materials cleanup site, dismantled the shed and its contents and buried them as low-level radioactive waste in Utah. However, his mother, fearful that she would lose her house if the full extent of the radiation were known, collected the majority of the radioactive material and threw it away in the conventional garbage, which officials did not know. Hahn refused medical evaluation for radiation exposure.
Hahn became depressed after the scandal, a problem exacerbated by the breakup with his girlfriend and the death by suicide of his mother in early 1996.:189 While he did graduate from high school, he lacked any direction or plans thereafter. His father and stepmother first encouraged him to attend Macomb Community College. He enrolled in a metallurgy program there but frequently skipped classes.:190 He was then encouraged to join the military, so he enlisted in the Navy, assigned to the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise as an undesignated seaman. After a four-year tour, he achieved interior communications specialist with a rank of petty officer, third class.:196
Hahn had hoped to pursue a nuclear specialist career. EPA scientists believe that Hahn's life expectancy may have been greatly shortened by his exposure to radioactivity, particularly since he spent large amounts of time in the small, enclosed shed with large amounts of radioactive material and only minimal safety precautions, but he refused their recommendation that he be examined at the Enrico Fermi Nuclear Generating Station.
After his time on the USS Enterprise, Hahn enlisted in the Marines and was stationed in Japan. After a few years, he was honorably discharged on medical grounds and returned to Michigan. He was later diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic with bipolar disorder, and took medication for both conditions.
The incident received scant media attention at the time, but was widely disseminated after writer Ken Silverstein published an article about the incident in Harper's Magazine in 1998. In 2004 he expanded it into a book, The Radioactive Boy Scout, which was optioned for a feature film in 2016.
In 1999 University of Chicago physics majors Justin Kasper and Fred Niell, as part of a scavenger hunt that had as one of its items, "a breeder reactor built in a shed", successfully built a similar nuclear reactor which produced trace amounts of plutonium and uranium.
A television documentary, The Nuclear Boyscout, aired on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom in 2003. In it, Hahn reenacted some of his methods for the camera. Though planned to air on the Discovery Channel, the program has not yet been broadcast in the United States.
Simon Le Bon of the English rock band Duran Duran noted in a 2000 performance on VH1 Storytellers that the lyrics to the band's song "Playing With Uranium" are in reference to a "schoolboy" who "built a nuclear reactor in his garden shed" years earlier. Though Le Bon described the subject as "15 years old", the song is most likely a reference to David Hahn's endeavor.
On August 1, 2007, Hahn was arrested in Clinton Township, Michigan, for larceny, in relation to a matter involving a number of smoke detectors, allegedly removed from the halls of his apartment building. His intention was to obtain americium from them. In his mug shot, his face is covered with sores which investigators believe are from exposure to radioactive materials. During a Circuit Court hearing, Hahn pleaded guilty to attempted larceny of a building. The court’s online docket said prosecutors recommended that he be sentenced to time served and enter an inpatient treatment facility. Under terms of the plea, the original charge of larceny of a building would be dismissed at sentencing, scheduled for October 4. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail for attempted larceny. Court records stated that his sentence would be delayed by six months while Hahn underwent medical treatment in the psychiatric unit of Macomb County Jail.
- Ghiorso, Albert. Book review of The Radioactive Boy Scout: The Frightening True Story of a Whiz Kid and His Homemade Nuclear Reactor. August 9, 2004, issue of Chemical and Engineering News (pp. 36–37). An analysis is given of some of Hahn's work by Ghiorso, who has been involved in the discovery of about a dozen transuranium elements.
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