Radioactive Boy Scout (David Hahn) Teenager builds Nuclear Reactor

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Radioactive Boy Scout, David Hahn, to earn his merit badge in nuclear science, constructed a breeder reactor in his back yard, inside his mother's gardening shed. His lab was torn down, when because of high levels of radiation, the Environmental Protection Agency, classified his mother's property as a Superfund cleanup site. How did David obtain radioactive fuel, and what happened to his health, after he was exposed to it.

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At the age of 10, David Hahn’s grandfather gave him as a gift, The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments. The young boy purchased Bunsen burners and test tubes. When his friends were playing with firecrackers, David was using his chemistry set to produce nitroglycerin. His parents were amazed by his scientific curiosity, but they were troubled by occasional explosions, which put holes in the walls of his bedroom. In the suburbs of Detroit, his mother exiled the boy and his experiments, to the potting shed, in the back yard of their home.

His father was worried that David was spending too much time on his experiments. In 1990, to divert the attention of his fourteen year old son, he decided it was time for David to join the Boy Scouts. His dad was exceedingly proud, when it was the highest achievement in the scouting organization, to which his son aspired... the rank of Eagle Scout. To become an Eagle Scout, David would have to earn 21 merit badges. 11 of these badges were mandatory, including camping and swimming. To earn the rest of his patches, the young man could choose from dozens of other activities, from astronomy to stamp collecting.

David Hahn decided to earn a merit badge, in atomic energy. He fulfilled some of the requirements, by interviewing a hospital radiologist, and by making a diagram demonstrating the process of nuclear fission. Despite the fact, that he often wore a respirator mask to conduct his most recent experiments, and that after working long hours in the shed, David would sometimes discard his clothing... his parents had no idea, that he was also building a nuclear reactor, a few dozen feet from the back door of their house.

But he needed nuclear fuel. David wrote a letter to the director of isotope production at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or the NRC. Posing as a physics teacher from Chippewa Valley High School, where he was actually enrolled as a student, he received professional tips on which radioactive elements could sustain a chain reaction, and from where he could purchase small amounts of these elements, for simple class experiments.

From common items, he harvested radioactive material. From old smoke detectors, he extracted the element, americium-241. He gathered Thorium from old lanterns, by pulverizing their gas mantles. Tritium was obtained from crossbow sights that glow in the dark. He bought an old clock whose numbers were painted in radium. Inside the clock itself, David found a full bottle of radium paint.

He built his tiny reactor. Then he irradiated himself, the shed, and his neighborhood. In 1994, when David was seventeen, he was driving around in his dented old Pontiac, trying to find a safe place to dispose of nuclear waste, when he was pulled over by the police. He felt obligated to warn them, he had radioactive material in his trunk. It was sealed inside a rusty tool box, which was padlocked, and wrapped with silver duct tape. This discovery would lead, to the dismantling of the backyard shed by the EPA, and the loading of its remains into thirty-nine sealed barrels, which were removed, to a radioactive dump facility in Utah.

After graduating high school, David Hahn enlisted as a sailor in the US Navy. He served honorably, aboard a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise. He was eventually discharged from the service, on account of poor health. He was only thirty-nine years old when he passed away. No one knows if the cause was radiation sickness. When the NRC had offered to measure, the amount of radiation absorbed by his body, he turned them down.

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