Metro-Detroit nearly had a nuclear disaster in August 1994. A young man, David Hahn, had been experimenting with building a nuclear reactor in his mom's garage. When the words began to spread about what nearly happened, the question lingered, how did this start?
Hahn was one of the top students in his class. He took to science class right away, always wanting to experiment and see how things worked. Teachers thought he was exceptional and encouraged the lad to continue seeing how things worked.
When he was just 10 years old, his parents bought him a book, The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments. Interesting Engineering reports that it was this gift that got him really into chemistry and trying things. The adults in his life were ecstatic that he was so invested in learning.
But it didn't stay that way for long.
By the time he turned 14, Hahn ditched the alleged children's experiment book in favor of his father's college textbooks. This move led to more tests that were increasingly dangerous.
As he began experimenting more, Hahn would cause explosions. He was banned from conducting experiments in his room because one of the tests he conducted blew up and caused damage. According to IFL Science, one of the things he made was nitroglycerin. One of the elements used in dynamite.
His father told him that he could only do them in the basement.
However, the move did not stop things from getting bad. One day, Hahn set red phosphorus on fire. The resulting explosion rocked the house and sent the teen to the hospital to have shards of glass removed from his eyes. Unilad says that it also caused his father to ban any more experiments in his home.
The young man moved his lab to his mother's garage.
Hahn built a high-tech lab in his mother's shed. While his parents worried about him, he was getting good grades and his teachers praised his academic spirit. But his father wasn't convinced. There was some worry that the young man was going too far in his exploration of science.
To ease his father's concern, Hahn agreed to take his role in the Boy Scouts more seriously. The new goal was for him to become an Eagle Scout. Grunge reports it was hoped that the teen would stop experimenting with chemicals and start doing more things outside, and make some friends.
The opposite happened.
While looking for a merit badge he could earn, Hahn discovered the perfect one for him: Atomic Energy. In 1994, the organization offered it as a way to help promote the newer power source. Nearly a decade later, executives with the Boy Scouts removed it as a badge that could be earned.
Part of the reason was what happened with Hahn. Throughout the summer of 1994, he set about building a nuclear reactor. According to The Daily Mail, his scoutmaster was pleased with the progress that he saw, sketches of what it would look like, etc.
However, the teen had other ideas. He set about gathering thorium, americium-241, radium-226, uranium, and other radioisotopes. Once all the materials were gathered, Hahn built a small nuclear reactor. And nobody knew about it.
At least not at first.
Radioactive Boy Scout
Hahn began to realize that his experiment was growing to be dangerous. One afternoon he walked around the neighborhood with a Geiger Counter and it was showing radiation hundreds and thousands of feet away from the shed. He knew that it needed to be taken care of, he needed to get rid of it.
In the early morning hours of August 31, 1994, neighbors called the police because they thought he was stealing tires. When officers arrived on the scene, Hahn made up an excuse about why he was out and about at such a time. But they didn't believe him.
Officers decided to check his car, suspecting that he was in the middle of a drug deal. According to All That's Interesting, they found his reactor, along with some other materials in the trunk. Not wanting them to get hurt, Hahn told the cops that the material was radioactive.
He was arrested on the spot.
Once in custody, Hahn was asked about the reactor. Officials worried that it was a bomb but he denied it. In the name of safety, the Michigan State Police Bomb Squad was called in to investigate. They determined it wasn't an explosive device but there was enough radioactivity to call in the Federal Radiological Emergency Response Plan.
Things continued to spiral from there. The Environmental Protection Agency was called in, they declared his mother's property a superfund site. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, it was a designation made for only the most severe and hazardous conditions.
Hahn managed to avoid jail time for the first experiment. However, the scandal rocked the community and he was shunned by those around him. Spectrum says that local scout leaders wanted to take away the Atomic Energy badge and his title of Eagle Scout. They were overruled.
But he still sank into a depression.
He passed away at the age of 36 in 2016. His legacy of genius and danger continues to grow in the area.