|Born||October 30, 1976|
Royal Oak, Michigan, U.S.
|Died||September 27, 2016 (aged 39)|
|Other names||Nuclear Boy Scout|
Radioactive Boy Scout
|Known for||Building a neutron source in his mother's backyard|
David Charles Hahn (October 30, 1976 – September 27, 2016), sometimes called the "Radioactive Boy Scout" or the "Nuclear Boy Scout", was an American nuclear radiation enthusiast who built a homemade neutron source at the age of seventeen.
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. Hahn's goal was to build and demonstrate a homemade breeder reactor. While he never managed to build a reactor, in August 1994 Hahn's progress attracted the attention of local police when they found material in his vehicle that troubled them during a stop for a separate matter. When Hahn warned them that the material was radioactive, the police contacted federal authorities. His mother's property was cleaned up by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 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 Magazine article by journalist Ken Silverstein. Hahn was also the subject of Silverstein's 2004 book The Radioactive Boy Scout. As an adult, Hahn served in the United States Navy and United States Marine Corps. He was subsequently treated for mental illness, and his death at age 39 was related to drug and alcohol use.
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Creation of the neutron source
Hahn was a Boy Scout fascinated by chemistry, and spent years conducting amateur chemistry experiments, which sometimes caused 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 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 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.
His homemade neutron source was often incorrectly referred to as a reactor, but it did emit measurable levels of radiation, likely exceeding 1,000 times normal background radiation. Alarmed, Hahn began to dismantle his experiments, but in a chance encounter, police discovered his activities, which triggered a Federal Radiological Emergency Response Team involving the FBI and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. On June 26, 1995, the EPA, 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. Unknown to officials, his mother, fearful that she would lose her house if the full extent of the radiation were known, had already collected the majority of the radioactive material and thrown it away in the conventional garbage. Hahn refused medical evaluation for radiation exposure. EPA scientists believed that Hahn's life expectancy may have been shortened due to his exposure to radioactivity, particularly since he spent long periods 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.
Hahn became depressed after the scandal, a problem exacerbated by the breakup with his then-girlfriend and the 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 (pay grade E-3). After a four-year tour, he achieved interior communications specialist with a rank of petty officer, third class (pay grade E-4).: 196
After his time on USS Enterprise, Hahn enlisted in the Marine Corps and was stationed in North Carolina. After a few years, Hahn achieved the rank of lance corporal (E-3). Shortly after returning from a rotation in Japan, he was honorably discharged on medical grounds and returned to Michigan.
On April 23, 2007, the FBI received a lead regarding Hahn's alleged possession of a second neutron source in his freezer. Contacted via telephone, Hahn insisted that he was not in possession of radioactive material. The FBI decided no imminent terrorist threat was present but decided to attempt a personal interview. During an interview at an FBI office on May 16, 2007, investigators' questions touched on a variety of topics, such as flyers that Hahn had distributed promoting his book and upcoming film; theft of tires and rims from a vehicle prior to his Navy service; a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia; and a few less significant topics. FBI agents then interviewed an individual (whose identity was not released) who stated that Hahn was using cocaine heavily, was not taking his prescribed medication, was paranoid about people who he claimed "had the ability to 'shock' his genitals with their minds", and had possibly been visited by prostitutes. The individual also stated that he believed that Hahn was still trying to build a reactor and was collecting radium. He stated that he did not believe Hahn had any intentions of hurting anyone, but was concerned about his mental state.
This investigation is likely what led to Hahn's arrest regarding larceny of smoke alarms.
Larceny of smoke detectors
On August 1, 2007, Hahn was charged with larceny in Clinton Township, Michigan for allegedly removing a number of smoke detectors from the halls of his apartment building. His intention was to obtain americium from them. In his mug shot, his face was covered with sores, which investigators believed could have been from exposure to radioactive materials, psoriasis, or possible drug use. 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.
On September 27, 2016, at the age of 39, Hahn died in his hometown of Shelby Charter Township, Michigan. His death was ruled an accidental result of intoxication from the combined effects of alcohol, diphenhydramine, and fentanyl.
In popular culture
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 that produced trace amounts of plutonium.
SPQN's mystery program Jimmy Akin Mysterious World, dedicated episode #92 on Hahn called "The Radioactive Boy Scout".
An episode of the CBS series Young Sheldon features the protagonist attempting to build a nuclear reactor by extracting americium from smoke detectors.
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- Silverstein, Ken (November 1998). "The Radioactive Boy Scout". Harper's Magazine. Retrieved September 10, 2014.
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- "County Coroner Findings". Retrieved December 2, 2018.
- Pressburg, Matt (September 28, 2016). "'Radioactive Boy Scout' Movie About Real Teen Nuke Builder in the Works". The Wrap. Retrieved October 6, 2016.
- Olkon, Sara (May 1, 2011). "Ready, set... Scav Hunt!". Uchicago.edu. Archived from the original on January 5, 2015. Retrieved May 3, 2022.
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- "David Hahn, the Radioactive Boy Scout". SQPN.com. April 3, 2020. Retrieved November 22, 2021.
- "Duncan Jones tells us what really happened at the end of Source Code". io9.
- Ghiorso, Albert (August 9, 2004). "Book Review of 'The Radioactive Boy Scout: The Frightening True Story of a Whiz Kid and His Homemade Nuclear Reactor'". Chemical and Engineering News. 82 (32): 36–37. doi:10.1021/cen-v082n032.p036. Retrieved June 21, 2011. 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.