The ‘Radioactive Boy Scout’ Who Accidentally Built a Nuclear Reactor in His Mother’s Backyard

Kids are explorers who love to investigate. They’ve spent hours doing their favorite crafts, puzzles, or experiments. But what if those leisure activities turned into something dangerous? A 17-year-old boy’s penchant for chemistry led him to experiment with creating a nuclear reactor. The experimental reactor was so dangerous that it could trigger the next Chernobyl disaster on thousands of residents in the Golf Manor area where he lived. When local authorities in Michigan found his lab, which was his mother’s grow shed, they immediately dismantled it. But he said he was just trying to earn a Boy Scout badge, as reported by Harper’s magazine.

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David Hahn was passionate about chemistry and wouldn’t let anyone watch his experiments. He taught himself how to build a neutron gun. He used coffee filters and pickle jars to manipulate deadly substances like radium and nitric acid. He bought beakers, Bunsen burners, and test tubes to conduct his secret experiments. When someone gave him a book called “The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments,” he became obsessed with his chemical experiments, IFL Science reports. But soon enough, the line was crossed and his typical teenage experiments turned into something perilous.

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Although David’s parents supported their son’s experiments when chemical spills and explosions became commonplace in their home, they began to worry. One day, he ended up destroying his room, after which his parents put a stop to his experiments in the basement. But he didn’t let that deter him. He moved his lab into his mother’s potting shed.

David was a member of Boy Scout Troop 371 in Clinton Township, Michigan. On May 10, 1991, at age 14, he earned an atomic energy merit badge. To earn it, he created an illustration of the nuclear fission process, visited a hospital X-ray unit to learn about the medical uses of radioisotopes, and built a model reactor using a juice can, coat hangers, soda straws, kitchen matches, and rubber bands. But he had bigger ambitions. In the potting shed, he then tried to build a nuclear reactor, called a “breeder reactor.”

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According to the New York Times archives, a nuclear breeder reactor produces more fuel (fissile material) than it consumes, while generating energy. It uses uranium as fuel and produces plutonium, which can be reused as fuel. The core of a breeder reactor contains fissile uranium and plutonium, atoms that split easily and release energy in the form of heat and radiation.

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Unlike conventional reactors that use water to transfer heat, a breeder reactor uses liquid sodium. Sodium does not slow the flow of neutrons like water does, so high-energy neutrons are more easily absorbed by fertile uranium to create plutonium. The sodium surrounding the core flows through a heat exchanger, a group of thin-walled metal tubes, and transfers its energy to a separate stream of sodium. The heat then passes through a steam generator. If the sodium leaks or comes into contact with water or air, it burns.

Representative image source: Schematic of an atomic energy reactor, designed by the North American Atomic Energy Aviation Commission, United States. (Photo by European/FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

To create the reactor, David used mostly homemade materials to generate radioactive materials. For example, he used household smoke detectors, which contain small amounts of americium. He contacted smoke detector manufacturers and told them he needed a large number of these devices for a school project. He then used thousands of lantern sleeves to obtain thorium by turning them into a mound of radioactive ash. This method allowed him to obtain purified thorium that was “9,000 times higher than what is found in nature and 170 times higher than what requires a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”

Representative image source: Pexels | Polina Tankilevitch

In August 1994, David was arrested when police discovered what they believed to be a “potential explosive device” in the trunk of his car. He quickly attracted the attention of the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the FBI, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). An investigation of his car by the Michigan State Police Bomb Squad and the state Department of Health revealed high concentrations of the radioactive materials thorium and americium.

When state radiological experts examined David’s laboratory, the pottery shed, they found levels of radioactive material that produced radiation 1,000 times higher than normal. The shed was registered as a public health hazard and was dismantled in June 1995. Additionally, the materials he had collected for his experiments were loaded into barrels and transported to the middle of the Great Salt Lake Desert in Utah, where they were buried under layers of sand.

Representative image source: A Portuguese army specialist in Mafra, Portugal. (Photo by Horacio Villalobos#Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)

Some time later, in an interview with Harper’s magazine, David revealed that despite their thorough investigation, the authorities had overlooked the most dangerous materials that were still lying around his house after they left. After the authorities left, David’s mother went into the shed and found vials of radium, thorium pellets, radioactive powder, and a neutron gun. She simply threw the materials in the trash. “The funny thing is, the EPA only got the trash, and the trash got all the good stuff,” David told Harper’s.

After his experiments were banned, David sank into a severe depression. While his classmates called him the “Radioactive Boy,” he took a job on the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. He wasn’t allowed to operate the ship’s nuclear reactor, of course, but every day when his shipmates went to bed, he would delve into the tomes that contained fascinating information on topics such as steroids, melanin, genetic codes, antioxidants, reactor prototypes, amino acids, and criminal law. In 2016, a depressed Hahn died of alcohol poisoning, according to UniladTech.