David Hahn

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David Charles Hahn
Born(1976-10-30)October 30, 1976
Shelby Charter Township, Michigan, United States[citation needed]
DiedSeptember 27, 2016(2016-09-27) (aged 39)
Shelby Charter Township, Michigan, United States
Cause of deathAlcohol poisoning
Known forbuilding a nuclear reactor in his backyard at the age of 17

David Charles Hahn (October 30, 1976 – September 27, 2016[1]), sometimes called the Radioactive Boy Scout or the Nuclear Boy Scout, was an American who in 1994, at age 17, attempted to build a homemade breeder reactor. 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 criticality, 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 (EPA) ten months later as a Superfund cleanup site. Hahn attained Eagle Scout rank shortly after his lab was dismantled.[2]

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.[2] It is likely Hahn received substantial doses of radiation. As an adult, Hahn served in the US Navy and the US Marine Corps. He was subsequently treated for mental illness, and his death at age thirty-nine was related to alcohol use.

Creation of the reactor[edit]

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 (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.[3][4]

Hahn posed as an adult scientist or high school teacher to gain the trust of many professionals in letters—and succeeded, despite misspellings and obvious errors.[citation needed] Hahn ultimately hoped to create a breeder reactor, using low-level isotopes to transform samples of thorium and uranium into fissionable isotopes.[5]

His homemade reactor never came anywhere near reaching critical mass—but 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 in a chance encounter, police discovered his activities, which triggered a Federal Radiological Emergency Response 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.[3]


Hahn became depressed after the scandal, a problem exacerbated by the breakup with his girlfriend and the suicide of his mother in early 1996.[2]: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.[2]: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.[3] After a four-year tour, he achieved interior communications specialist with a rank of petty officer, third class.[2]:196

Hahn had hoped to pursue a nuclear specialist career.[citation needed] EPA scientists believe that Hahn's life expectancy may have been greatly shortened by his exposure to radioactivity, particularly since he spent long periods 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.[3]

After his time on 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.

FBI Investigation[edit]

On April 23, 2007, The FBI received a lead regarding Hahn's alleged possession of a second breeder reactor in his freezer.[6] After contacting Hahn via telephone, Hahn insisted he was not in possession of radioactive material. The FBI decided there was no imminent terrorist threat but agreed to attempt a personal interview.[7] On May 16, 2007, Hahn was interviewed at an FBI office, where discussed were flyers that Hahn had distributed promoting his book and upcoming film, theft of tires and rims from a vehicle prior to his Navy service, diagnosis of Paranoid Schizophrenia, and a few less significant topics.[8] FBI agents then interviewed an individual (Identity not released) who stated that Hahn was using cocaine heavily, was not taking his prescribed medication, and that Hahn was paranoid of people that he claimed "had the ability to 'shock' his genitals with their minds", and possible visits of prostitutes.[9] The individual also stated that he believes 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 for his mental state.[10]

This investigation is likely what led to Hahn's arrest regarding larceny of smoke alarms.

Larceny of smoke detectors[edit]

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.[11][12] His intention was to obtain americium from them. In his mug shot, his face is covered with sores which investigators believe could possibly be from exposure to radioactive materials.[13] 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.[14] 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.[15]


Hahn died on Tuesday, September 27, 2016, at the age of 39. At the time, he was a resident of Shelby Charter Township, Michigan.[1][16] Hahn's father has since confirmed that the cause of death was alcohol poisoning.[17]

In popular culture[edit]

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.[3] In 2004 he expanded it into a book, The Radioactive Boy Scout, which was optioned for a feature film in 2016.[18]

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.[19]

In the CSI: NY episode "Page Turner", the character Lawrence Wagner is based on David Hahn.[20]

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.

Hahn's experiments inspired others to attempt similar feats, particularly Taylor Wilson, who at age 14 became the youngest person to produce nuclear fusion.[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "David Charles Hahn". Tributes.com. Tributes, Inc. 26 September 2016. Retrieved 4 Oct 2016.
  2. ^ a b c d e Silverstein, Ken (2004). The Radioactive Boy Scout: The Frightening True Story of a Whiz Kid and His Homemade Nuclear Reactor. Villard. ISBN 978-0812966602.
  3. ^ a b c d e Silverstein, Ken (November 1998). "The Radioactive Boy Scout". Harper's Magazine. Retrieved September 10, 2014.
  4. ^ Rauschenberger, Tim (2004-03-16). "The Nuclear Merit Badge". The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 2016-02-03.
  5. ^ Kean, Sam (2010). The Disappearing Spoon. Little, Brown and Co.
  6. ^ "David Hahn Part 01 of 01". Federal Bureau of Investigation. 2010-02-26. p. 2. Retrieved 2018-10-15.
  7. ^ "David Hahn Part 01 of 01". Federal Bureau of Investigation. 2010-02-26. p. 5. Retrieved 2018-10-15.
  8. ^ "David Hahn Part 01 of 01". Federal Bureau of Investigation. 2010-02-26. p. 9. Retrieved 2018-10-15.
  9. ^ "David Hahn Part 01 of 01". Federal Bureau of Investigation. 2010-02-26. p. 13. Retrieved 2018-10-15.
  10. ^ "David Hahn Part 01 of 01". Federal Bureau of Investigation. 2010-02-26. p. 13. Retrieved 2018-10-15.
  11. ^ Taylor, Adam (2011-08-02). "The Weird Story Of The Swedish Man Who Tried To Build A Nuclear Reactor In His Kitchen". Business Insider. Retrieved 2016-02-03.
  12. ^ "Man dubbed 'Radioactive Boy Scout' pleads guilty". Detroit Free Press. August 27, 2007. Archived from the original on September 29, 2007. Retrieved February 3, 2016.
  13. ^ "'Radioactive Boy Scout' Charged in Smoke Detector Theft". Fox News. August 4, 2007. Retrieved November 28, 2007.
  14. ^ "Man dubbed 'Radioactive Boy Scout' pleads guilty". Detroit Free Press. Associated Press. August 27, 2007. Archived from the original on September 29, 2007. Retrieved August 27, 2007.
  15. ^ "'Radioactive Boy Scout' Sentenced to 90 Days for Stealing Smoke Detectors". Fox News. October 4, 2007. Retrieved November 28, 2007.
  16. ^ "David Hahn Obituary - Shelby Township, Michigan". www.legacy.com. 2016-10-02.
  17. ^ "Man who tried to build a homemade nuclear reactor didn't die of radiation poisoning". Ars Technica. 2017-03-14. Retrieved 14 March 2017.
  18. ^ Pressburg, Matt (2016-09-28). "'Radioactive Boy Scout' Movie About Real Teen Nuke Builder in the Works". The Wrap. Retrieved 2016-10-06.
  19. ^ Olkon, Sara (2011-05-01). "Ready, set... Scav Hunt!". Uchicago.edu. Retrieved 2016-02-03.
  20. ^ Gail, Nancy. "TV Review: CSI: NY, 'Page Turner'". Blog Critics. Archived from the original on October 20, 2011. Retrieved January 29, 2012.
  21. ^ "The Boy Who Played With Fusion". Popular Science. Retrieved 2016-04-20.

Further reading[edit]