The Wild, True, & Tragic Case of Michigan’s Radioactive Boy Scout
The phrase "Radioactive Boy Scout" sounds like a rejected plotline for the latest Marvel movie. But this was, in fact, a real person who lived right here in Michigan.
As a warning, this story ends in tragedy, as does any story that involves experiments with a homemade nuclear reactor. Buckle up, this is a wild ride.
Michigan's Radioactive Boy Scout
This story starts in Commerce Township just outside of Detroit where a young David Hahn, who was very interested in science, decided to conduct a new (and very dangerous) experiment.
His particular area of interest? Nuclear energy. According to this 2004 article from theguardian.com, Hahn began educating himself by reading books like Popular Mechanics and the Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments and even took his interest as far as posing as a professor to gain access to radioactive materials. The article goes on to say that,
What he could not get from laboratory suppliers, universities, hospitals and nuclear agencies, he made himself.
He was about 15 years old when he started this.
Conducting his experiments in secret in the shed in his backyard, he actually earned a merit badge for Atomic Energy from the Boy Scouts, according to Wikipedia. Perhaps earning that badge is what inspired him to take his experiments even further.
The Experiments Grow More Extreme
According to a separate article from dangerouslaboratories.com, David became obsessed with figuring out how to radiate things. His goal was to build a neutron gun using small amounts of materials found in everyday items like smoke detectors and lithium batteries.
He wrote to different companies pretending to be doing an experiment for school. Most places were happy to help him out. None of them, I'm sure, had any suspicion that a teenager was going to attempt to build his own reactor.
I'm not going to pretend to know anything about creating reactions between different chemicals. But, dangerouslaboratories.com goes on to say that after acquiring materials like lithium and thorium ash he,
placed the lithium and thorium ash together in a ball of aluminum foil and heated the ball with a Bunsen burner. This purified the thorium to at least 9000 times the level found in nature, and up to 170 times the level that requires NRC licensing. But David's americium gun wasn't strong enough to transform thorium into uranium.
Even to someone who is completely uneducated in the subject of science, this sounds pretty extreme and dangerous.
The Breeder Reactor
At the age of 17, David Hahn became determined to build his own breeder reactor. A breeder reactor is defined as,
a nuclear reactor that produces more fissionable material than it consumes to generate energy.
You can read more here.
In a sense, his experiment was almost successful but became out of control very quickly. Before he could shut it down, Hahn ended up irradiating himself, the entire shed where he conducted his experiments and even part of his neighborhood.
At this point, in 1994, the police, FBI, and Environmental Protection Agency became involved and David's secret experiments were exposed. He was arrested but didn't stay jailed for long.
Life After the Scandal
Most sources say that David went on to join the Navy and then the U.S. Marines before eventually returning to Michigan.
Unfortunately, in September of 2016, David Hahn passed away at the age of 39. You can read more about his life at the time of his death here.
As mentioned above, there have been several articles written about David's ill-conceived science experiments. However, in 2005 a man by the name of Ken Silverstein published a book titled, "The Radioactive Boy Scout: The Frightening True Story of a Whiz Kid and His Homemade Nuclear Reactor."
You can purchase it here.
Despite being true, the story of David Hahn's life sincerely reads like fiction. And, it's hard to define the true tragedy. Is it the boy who wasn't pointed in the right direction when it came to his scientific interests? Was it the fact that radioactive materials were so easily acquired in the 90s? Who's to say?
Just add it to the list of wild stories that originate in Michigan...
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