|David Charles Hahn|
October 30, 1976|
Clinton Township, Michigan, United States
|Died||September 27, 2016
Shelby Charter Township, Michigan, United States
|Known for||Attempting to build a nuclear reactor in his backyard at the age of 17|
David Charles Hahn (October 30, 1976 – September 27, 2016; not related to Otto Hahn), 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 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 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.
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. Hahn ultimately hoped to create a breeder reactor, using low-level isotopes to transform samples of thorium and uranium into fissionable isotopes.
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 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. 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.
Hahn became depressed after the scandal, a problem exacerbated by the breakup with his 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. 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 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.
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 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.
Hahn died on Tuesday, September 27, 2016, at the age of 39. At the time, he was a resident of Shelby Charter Township, Michigan. Hahn's father has since confirmed that the cause of death was alcohol poisoning.
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.
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.
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 refer 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.
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- "David Hahn Obituary - Shelby Township, Michigan". www.legacy.com.
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- 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. 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.