David Hahn: The boy scout who built a nuclear reactor

David Hahn: The boy scout who built a nuclear reactor

A lot of adults owe their work ethic, ingenuity, and sense of community to the boy scouts. OK, so maybe the institution isn’t as prevalent as it once was, but the measures that those kids will go to in order to get merit badges are simply insane. When I was a child I certainly didn’t have the kind of entrepreneurial spirit required to sell dozens of boxes of cookies, survive a hike into the woods, or build a nuclear reactor.

Yes, you read that last sentence correctly. You know how in movies and TV shows you often have the stereotypical teen genius character? Kids like Dexter from Dexter’s Laboratory, who are capable of building time machines, fashioning jetpacks and flying cars out of everyday household objects? Well, it turns out that that character actually has a basis in reality, and that truth really is stranger than fiction. Think I’m pulling your leg? Then let me take you back to the mid-nineties, to peaceful Commerce Township, Michigan, and tell you the tale of David Hahn, also known as The Nuclear Boy Scout.

A boy scout saluting the American flag. Credit: Getty

David Hahn was a boy who, even from a young age, embodied a number of the ideal traits of the archetypal American Boy Scout: an insatiable curiosity and aptitude for experimentation, and a do-it-yourself attitude that would have put the pioneers to shame. Hahn’s fascination (some might say obsession) with chemistry first began at the age of ten, when his stepmother’s father bought him a book entitled The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments.

The book was written in the same vein as texts like 101 Things A Boy Can Do - to inspire kids to participate in harmless domestic experiments. Until that day, David had been a typical kid, playing softball and enjoying bike rides. But from the moment he opened the The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments and leafed through its pages, he was in love with science. He devoured the book, and became engrossed in the possibilities it presented him.

By the age of twelve, he was stealing his dad’s old college textbooks and owned his own prized chemistry set. His father, an aloof General Motors employee who lived a peripatetic lifestyle, faithfully encouraged his son’s hobby, never knowing just how lofty David’s ambitions were. Unlike most of us, David wasn't content with making a vinegar and baking-soda volcano and calling it a day. He wanted to be legit scientist.

A boy scout. Credit: Getty

David saved up his pocket money to buy beakers, Bunsen burners, and test tubes and by the time he was a teenager his bedroom had begun to resemble Walter White’s meth lab. The room was pot-marked with burns and scorches, the carpet stained with mysterious substances, and a strong smell of sulphur began to emanate from within. David eventually managed to cause a small explosion in the room in an attempt to synthesize nitroglycerin.

Despite being a quiet boy, and poor student when the subject wasn’t chemistry, David was relatively popular, particularly with his fellow boy scouts. The troupe he was in often benefited from his chemistry experiments, which involved moonshine and fireworks. His dad and stepmother worried that he was making drugs, but when they discovered parts of a stolen smoke detector in his room, they concluded that he had developed a newfound interest in electronics.

They made a deal with David: they would consent to buying him more chemistry textbooks if he agreed to move his experiments out into the garden shed, where the explosions and weird smells could be safely contained. David consented to this. The fears of his guardian’s were assuaged.

Nuclear isotopes inside a container. Credit: Getty

Little did they know that they had played right into his hands, since 15-year-old David now needed privacy. He was about to begin work on his most formidable challenge yet: a homebrew Manhattan project right there in his backyard. David was about to go radioactive to gain an atomic energy merit badge. His plan was to build a breeder reactor, a device capable of extracting energy from uranium deposits through fission.

Of course, acquiring the ingredients to create a nuclear reactor is not easy, as one would expect. The United States Energy commission doesn’t want just anyone getting their hands on nuclear materials, for obvious reasons. But David shrewdly manipulated the system. He'd pose as a scientist or high school teacher, and write to various publications and journals, including the American Nuclear Society, the Edison Electric Institute, and the Atomic Industrial Forum, asking if there was any way for him to acquire chemical samples.

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David obtained americium from smoke detectors, thorium from camping lantern mantles, radium from clocks, and tritium from gunsights, and stocked up on vast quantities of batteries in order to obtain enough lithium. He then welded the americium components together with a blow torch and quickly sealed the sample inside a block of lead after it began to leak alpha rays. He used an aluminium sheet to absorb the harmful rays, and would cruise around town with a miniature Geiger counter, looking for uranium deposits.

The privacy of the garden shed meant that his parents were less inquisitive about his experiments, even though they often required a gas mask and gloves, or when David donned a crude lead poncho and threw away his clothes afterwords. If they had glanced at David’s Geiger counter, (which “Dr Hahn” had obtained from one of his numerous pen pals) they would have been alarmed to discover that it had registered high radiation levels five doors down from their house.  

Despite Hahn’s attempts to isolate the emissions, his breeder was getting too radioactive for him to keep secret. Although the reactor was nowhere close to critical mass, and would never have caused an American Chernobyl explosion, it was literally held together with duct tape, and was emitting more than 1000 times the normal level of ordinary background radiation.

A Geiger counter used in nuclear cleanup. Credit: Getty

David was forced to dismantle his precious reactor when it became apparent that things were getting out of hand. He placed his thorium pellets in a shoebox, left the radium and americium samples in the potting shed and dumped the rest of his equipment in the back of his car. It had taken three years, but at seventeen years old, the boy scout had succeeded in his goal: he’d built a functioning reactor. He’d earned his merit badge.

But there were dire consequences for his recklessness. When David’s car was pulled over by police they discovered the incriminating nuclear materials in the back of his trunk, which had been sealed with a padlock. The officers panicked when they found the disassembled remains of Hahn’s reactor; and assumed he was some kind of terrorist building a nuclear bomb. Hahn was arrested, his car was towed to the police station, and the bomb squad was called in.

When police interviewed him and discovered that he’d been building a reactor in order to bag himself an eagle scout badge, expert radiologists were called in, and the peaceful suburb of Golf Manor was temporarily evacuated while HAZMAT-wearing scientists removed the nuclear waste. The cleanup cost $60,000, and David’s family was given a fine.

A nuclear cleanup crew wearing gas masks. Credit: Getty

One would think that a boy who displayed so much ingenuity, determination and intelligence would go on to great things, perhaps go through college on a scholarship to work in a professional laboratory or nuclear power plant. But sadly, David’s life after high school was steeped in tragedy and loss.

His alcoholic mother committed suicide not long after the authorities discovered his reactor and he broke up with his girlfriend in 1996. He seemed directionless, apathetic to anything that didn’t glow green and, although he enrolled in a metallurgy course, he soon dropped out. He joined the military, but was subsequently diagnosed with schizophrenia and then discharged. But his obsession with nuclear reactors had not abated. Like an addict he relapsed back into old habits; it seemed that his amateur experiments were less to do with scout badges, and more the symptoms of a deadly compulsion as his mental disorder swallowed his life.

In August of 2007, Hahn was charged with larceny after he was again found removing materials from smoke detectors. His face was pitted with weeping sores and red spots. He looked pale and gaunt, and police believed that his dishevelled appearance was the result of his exposure to uranium. Hahn died on Tuesday, September 27, 2016 at the age of 39 as a result of alcohol poisoning.

A potting shed similar to that used by David Hahn. Credit: Getty

Hahn’s story is a testament to the DIY spirit of science, although it seems to have had horrible repercussions for him down the line. The more we learn about his life: his mother’s substance abuse, his nomadic home environment and introversion, the more his experiment appears to actually be caused by serious mental and emotional problems which spiralled out of control. Hahn was thrill-seeker and a rebel, who found exhilaration away from drugs, rock concerts and fast cars, and in labs with his test tubes.

Yes, he was reckless and lacked foresight, but if his issues had been noticed sooner, he might have been put back on a safer path, and harnessed his considerable scientific talents properly. Instead, we’re left to mourn him and ponder what might have been. But one thing that is beyond dispute? Nobody on Earth deserves that atomic energy badge as much as he does.

Featured illustration by Egarcigu