“The typical kid [working on their merit badge] would have gone to a doctor’s office and asked about the X-ray machine. Dave had to go out and try to build a reactor.”
— Barbara Auito,Treasurer of Boy Scout Troop 371, The Radioactive Boy Scout by Ken Silverstein
I’m sure in your life you’ve had some strange neighbors with interesting kids. You’ve probably had experiences with them breaking a window when an errant baseball flew the wrong direction. Maybe they threw parties or did things to annoy you? At worst maybe one of these kids was a bad seed and got in trouble with the police.
David Hahn happened to be a different breed entirely. He’d do things in his teenage years that stretched the limits of the imagination. Living in a quiet Detroit suburb, he was the image of the average American kid. He was an avid Boy Scout and a bit of a nerd. In his free time, you’d catch him reading books. There was nothing that would make anyone look twice — except if you knew him well.
As Kevin Silverstein explains, one random day towards the end of June in 1995, neighbors would notice a scene out of a movie. Almost a dozen men, some armed, charged on the property of David’s mother, Patty. A few of the men were dressed in gear that made them look like they were getting ready for a moon mission.
They would cut apart a shed in Patty Hahn’s yard piece by piece. They carefully put the pieces and contents in sealed drums with radioactive labels on them. The suburban community would be caught completely off guard, although one neighbor watching had said they’d seen the shed give off a strange glow one random night.
The group of men dismantling the shed came from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and told the residents it was a chemical spill — nothing to worry about. In actuality, a 17-year-old boy managed to build a primitive nuclear reactor in his mom’s potting shed.
I’m sure you’re thinking this is impossible and it can’t be done. Think again, at one point in history radioactive elements were used frequently in common everyday items. Glow in the dark clocks were painted with radium. Smoke detectors had americium-241. Also, certain lanterns had mantles made of thorium.
You could find items with radioactive components in the strangest of places, like Kmart, hardware stores, and even Kodak had a reactor it would use for various research and development. At one point in time, an enterprising boy scout could get his hands on enough radioactive elements to do things that would be thought impossible today.
A Budding Scientist
“After two years of back-breaking work they reached their goal. One night they went to the shed in which they had been working. They opened the door and stepped in without putting on the lights. All around them, the containers that held the solutions of the new substance glowed in the dark! They had discovered a new element — radium — a million times more active than uranium.”
— The Golden Book of Chemistry, Robert Brent (description of the Curie’s discovery of the radioactive element radium)
David’s parents would divorce early, and his time would be split between households. While with his father he was given The Golden Book of Chemistry, which he would read cover to cover repeatedly at the age of 10. David’s normal life would soon become a pursuit of science. One of his early heroes would be Marie Curie, an early pioneer of radioactive research.
The book would show step by step how to reproduce scientific experiments done by great figures in the past. It would also explain how kids could make their own scientific lab. David would soon be doing his own science experiments, which became dangerous over time.
According to an article in Harper’s Magazine, by the age of 12 David was able to comprehend his father’s college chemistry books and by 14 had created nitroglycerin. After the child-scientist blew up his room, he’d be sent packing to the basement with his experiments.
As David’s experiments became larger and larger, his father and new stepmother would become worried. An experiment with red phosphorus nearly killed the boy and leveled the house. Eventually they’d lock their son out of the house unless one of them was home to keep an eye on him.
Atomic Merit Badge
The National Museum of Nuclear Science and History (Atomic / Nuclear Merit Badge)
“If you don’t take risks, you don’t do anything. If you don’t do anything, you are nothing…that’s sort of been my philosophy with chemistry and experiments.”
— David Hahn, “The Nuclear Boy Scout”, BBC 4 (2003)
As mentioned previously, David had been a Boy Scout before his newfound appreciation for science. As David got older, his father pushed him to become an Eagle Scout to get him away from his home lab. In order to achieve this honor, several merit badges would have to be earned in the process. David soon noticed there was a merit badge for atomic energy as well as chemistry.
As strange as an atomic energy merit badge sounds, the Boy Scouts gave out badges in various skills, from woodworking to first aid and various sciences. According to the Nuclear Science Division of Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory, 5,000 boys a year earned a badge in atomic or nuclear energy.
David would win the Atomic Energy badge when he was about 15. He’d be able to draw pictures showing how nuclear fission occurs. He’d visit a hospital to learn about how radioactive isotopes are used in medicine. The scientist-scout would also make a model of a nuclear reactor with juice cans, straws, rubber bands, and various household items. He’d also create his own Geiger counter, which he’d often bring to school
In his studies, he’d digest paperwork from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and many companies that operated nuclear power plants. This information would set his mind a glow like the rocks in Marie Curie’s shed. David’s original desire in chemistry was to have one of every element in the periodic table of elements. Now he wanted to create a device to irradiate things.
According to the article in Harper’s Magazine, after David sent letters to the organizations listed in his Boy Scout pamphlets, he got some direction on how to build his “radiation gun”. The NRC was the most helpful. Of course, David didn’t say what he was doing in the letters, he said he was Professor David Hahn looking for information to teach his students.
David would find that americium-241 could be found in smoke detectors. A helpful customer service rep from a manufacturer explained to a “student writing a research paper” where the radioactive element could be found in the detector. David would begin to purchase or steal several detectors and remove the small radioactive piece he needed for his gun.
David would weld all the americium together with a blow torch and stick it in a lead block with a small hole. A piece of foil would be placed in front of the hole. The foil would block alpha waves and push out neutrons. After checking the device with a paraffin candle as a catalyst, he could tell the primitive gun was emitting neutrons.
However, David wouldn’t settle with irradiating random objects. If he hit radioactive elements with his gun, it might cause a chain reaction. This sounded more promising. After all, if you don’t take risks, you don’t do anything. Marie Curie didn’t achieve success by playing it safe.
The Atomic Shed
“The NRC gave me all the information I needed. All I had to do was go out and get the materials.”
— David Hahn, The Radioactive Boy Scout, Harper’s Magazine
David had set up his atomic devices in a shed in his mom’s yard to keep away from his father’s prying eyes. He hadn’t totally abandoned the idea of safety. He’d “acquire” a lead-lined suit from a civilian defense agency under the guise of using it for a Boy Scout project. David would just never return it. He’d also get a gas mask to wear in the shed.
Our enterprising Boy Scout would also buy a professional Geiger counter and drive around looking for natural uranium for his experiment. Although he couldn’t get his hands-on significant amounts of uranium, he decided he could make it. If he hit thorium with enough neutrons, it could be converted to the sought-after element. David would collect lanterns, smash the elements, and purify the thorium with lithium from batteries he cut apart.
David would also improve his radiation gun by finding radium to use instead of the americium. He’d find the radium after his Geiger counter went off passing an antique store. He’d find an old clock with a face painted with radium to make it glow in the dark. He’d also find a vile of radium paint stashed within the clock.
Once the radium gun was created, David managed to irradiate the thorium, but the small amounts of uranium didn’t pan out. He came up with a new plan. He’d make a primitive reactor with all the elements he’d assembled.
He’d wrap the various elements in foil cubes, then duct tape them together. He’d monitor the shed with his Geiger counter and as he hoped, the shed’s radioactivity grew. However, he became worried when the counter began to go off from five houses away.
There was too much atomic material in one place. He’d break apart his experiment and do the most logical thing he could think of at the time — put it in the trunk of his car and take off.
The Fallout From The Atomic Project
As David was transferring the material, police would be called to check out a suspicious car. They’d question David and check his trunk. They’d find vacuum tubes, fireworks, strange foil wrapped cubes, and a toolbox that was locked and duct taped shut.
One could only imagine the shock when the dorky teenager they questioned told the police to be careful because everything in the trunk was radioactive. Strangely, David’s atomic car would be towed to the police station. The bomb squad and the Department of Public Health would find levels of radioactivity far above what was observed in the natural environment.
According to the article in Harper’s Magazine, after multiple interviews David would admit that he had a lab in his mother’s shed. His mother, fearing the Feds make take her house, had thrown out a number of things her son left in the shed and around the home. This means an unknown amount of radioactive material found its way into a local trash truck.
The BBC 4 documentary on David’s adventure would explain that he’d never be prosecuted for his backyard reactor. It turns out laws weren’t on the books to deal with an event like this. There were statutes dealing with organizations, but not single individuals.
However, the boy achieved such a level of infamy he’d be watched carefully from that point on. The work he’d spent years of his life on went away in sealed drums with the EPA. From that point on, he’d have no direction in his life.
A Waste Of A Mind
David would die in 2016 of a drug overdose. After his run in with the law, his life fell apart. His mother would kill herself and his father would push him into joining the navy. He’d spend a few years on a nuclear aircraft carrier swabbing the decks, but really did nothing of note.
In the BBC documentary on David, you can see an awkward 26-year-old that sounded almost dopey. Despite his science acumen, he was a terrible student and failed anything that wasn’t chemistry related. He may not have been able to spell brilliant, but from his exploits, you can see he possessed an incredible mind.
In modern days when a kid hacks a company’s website, they’re often hired by that same company for their skill. When a fraudster named Frank Abagnale caused chaos with an endless supply of fake checks, the government hired him, and Steven Spielberg made a movie about him. Wernher von Braun became a designer of the American space program after his time helping the Nazis develop the V-2 rocket.
It makes you wonder who David Hahn could have become if a similar approach was taken with him. Instead of being a strange footnote in history, perhaps his story could have been one of redemption and promise. Maybe Steven Spielberg might have even made a movie about him.