The Boy Scout Who Attempted To Make A Nuclear Reactor

“Scouting is a man’s job cut down to a boy’s size.” —Robert Baden-Powell

In A Nutshell

In the mid-90s, a boy from Michigan attempted to make a nuclear reactor in his backyard shed. He exposed his neighbors to high amounts of radiation and was eventually stopped by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The Whole Bushel

David Hahn was born in Golf Manor, Michigan, about 40 kilometers (25 mi) from Detroit. David seemed like a normal boy in most respects. He played several sports and was a member of the Boy Scouts. David took an interest in chemistry around age 10 and then started to read his father’s college chemistry textbooks. After an incident in the basement of his father and stepmother’s basement, David was forced to move his operations to his mother’s backyard shed. But he didn’t stop there.

David decided to take his interests to the next level. He started to develop cover stories and even formed a fake identity, claiming to be a high school physics instructor. David wrote to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) using his identity, and was answered by the agency’s director of isotope production and distribution. The director told him about isolating and obtaining radioactive elements, and told him about some isotopes that can sustain a chain reaction when bombarded with neutrons.

Hahn found out that small amount of a radioactive isotope, known as americium-241, was used in smoke detectors. He contacted smoke detector companies and one sold him about 100 broken detectors for $1 apiece.

All of the components that Hahn used for his attempted nuclear reactor came from many common items, including mantles from gas lanterns which contain thorium-232, and a clock that held a vial of radium paint. After blow-torching the mantles into a pile of ash, he isolated the thorium by using the lithium from $1,000 worth of batteries.

After an encounter with the police on August 31, 1994, David was found with a toolbox that he said was radioactive. The police feared that the toolbox, which was bound with a padlock and duct tape, was a nuclear bomb. The Federal Radiological Emergency response plan was put into action and eventually the EPA and NRC were involved.

On June 26, 1995, the EPA moved in on David Hahn’s radioactive shed, and confiscated all of his radioactive equipment and materials. He exposed his neighbors to nearly 1,000 times the normal amount of background radiation.

More recently, in 2007, David Hahn was arrested for stealing smoke detectors from the apartment complex where he lived. His face was covered in sores apparently from radioactive contact.

Show Me The Proof

Harper’s Magazine: Tale of the Radioactive Boy Scout
Vsauce: Cruel Bombs (video)