In the summer of 1994, a boy of 17 was wandering around his neighborhood on the outskirts of Detroit his face was glued to a small electronic device in his hand which was giving off a series of rapid beeps. If this scene played out today nobody would look twice, smartphone zombies took over our streets years ago but this was the mid-90s, and while smartphones had been invented just about nobody actually owned one yet.
So what exactly was the boy holding and why did it have him so engrossed? well as it happens it was a Geiger counter and the reason it held the boy’s wrapped attention was simple the rapid string of beeps it was admitting confirmed something that was both exciting and utterly terrifying it meant the nuclear reactor he built in his mother’s potting shed was working.
But I’m getting ahead of myself to understand how we got to this intriguing scene in the first place we need to start at the beginning all parents secretly dream of big things for their offspring of raising a precarious and talented child with an inquiring mind and a first for knowledge, but sometimes we need to be careful what we wish for because in the wrong hands, an inquiring mind can be a very dangerous thing indeed and nobody demonstrated that point better than David Charles Hahn also known as the radioactive boy scout.
A sliding doors moment is defined as a seemingly trivial occurrence that can have a profound effect on the course of your life, a missed train that sees you meet your future wife, or a drunk conversation at a party that sparks the idea for the next billion-dollar startup.
David Hans sliding doors moment came at the age of 10 in the form of a book an inexpensive gift from his stepmother’s father the golden book of chemistry experiments it was just a science textbook for kids nothing more but it would go on to profoundly change David’s life and endanger the lives of some 40,000 others in the process, but I’ll get to that part later.
The golden book of chemistry experiments was an odd volume it wasn’t golden for a start and whilst it was aimed at children some of its contents were questionable it outlines some 200 exciting science experiments that could be carried out in the comfort of your home.
But when I say exciting what I really mean is incredibly dangerous and not in the least bit suitable for kids. For example, it included an experiment that created chlorine gas inhale if you’d like to know what it feels like to experience pulmonary edema and another that required the use of carbon tetrachloride using that one topically if you’re keen to irrevocably damage your central nervous system.
Apparently, neither health nor safety had been invented in 1960, and as soon as they were “the golden book of experiments” was one of the first things to be banned, it was taken out of print and removed from libraries around us incidentally thanks to its connection to this story the textbook is quite valuable these days.
You can occasionally find original copies listed on sites like eBay for upwards of a thousand dollars. It might be worth scouring the attic if you’re about the right age and we’re into science in your younger days.
Anyway, by the time the regulators decided we probably shouldn’t be encouraging young children to handle potentially lethal substances in the name of science, it was already far too late at least for David Hahn because by then he’d long since worked his way through the entire book from back to front and thirsty for more chemistry knowledge that is not carbon tetrachloride he’d moved on to his dad’s old college chemistry textbooks by the age of 14.
when most of his friends would have marveled at the eruptive force of a baking soda volcano David had successfully brewed up a batch of nitroglycerin in his bedroom.
For those of you who haven’t seen fight club nitroglycerin is the key explosive ingredient in dynamite. Dynamite was invented by a Swedish man called Alfred Nobel the man for whom the Nobel prize is named.
Not all of David Hahn’s experiments were successful he’d set up his base of operations in his bedroom at his father’s house his parents were divorced and he frequently caused small explosions that left craters in the walls reduced to furniture to splinters and coated the carpet in corrosive chemicals, as a result, he was banished to the basement, but it soon became clear that wasn’t going to cut it either.
Because not long after he moved to his new subterranean lair this would all make a great origin story for a comic book supervillain, by the way, David managed to ignite a sample of red phosphorus he’d gotten hold of the resulting explosion, rattled the entire house and left David in need of hospital treatment to remove thousands of tiny shards of plastic from his eyes.
But this episode earned David more than just an eye full of microscopic daggers, it also snagged him a blanket ban on any kind of scientific experimentation in the house not that he minded he’d outgrown the basement anyway he was ready to build his first high-tech full-scale lab in his mother’s potting shed. Even budding super villains have to start somewhere.
It was around this time that David’s father began to get a little concerned his son might be veering off the proverbial rails and so Mr Hahn did what every caring emotionally available father would have done in his shoes, he found someone else to take care of the problem. In this case the leader of a local scout troop.
Now David was already a boy scout at the time but his father wanted him to take things to the next level to become a boy scout high priest I think the official term is eagle scout as you probably know boy scouts are able to earn merit badges in various disciplines things like camping level work archery, and bugling.
You know toolkit of the 21st-century type stuff, but in his pursuit of eagle scout status, David managed to find a merit badge that was more to his personal tastes one in atomic energy, yep that really is a thing or at least it was until the scouts ditched it in 2005 which was probably for the best because the atomic energy scout badge was pretty much just a nuclear energy propaganda campaign a scout sponsored brainwashing program put together by a whole bunch of organizations with a vested interest in the success of nuclear energy on American soil.
From the perspective of his scout leader David seemed to be doing a great job of securing the coveted merit badge he’d drawn some nice little pictures representing what goes on inside a nuclear reaction and interviewed doctors at the local hospital to learn how radioactive isotopes are used in radiology.
These were good wholesome scouty activities and David successfully earned his atomic energy merit badge when he was 14 years old but over the following couple of years, David began working towards another loftier goal.
As far as David was concerned there was only one logical next step after knocking together a pretend nuclear reactor, he was going to build a real one. After all, he was a perfectly honed atomic energy expert and he had the boy scouts’ merit badge to prove it.
But David had a problem. Actually, he had too first whilst he had long since devoured the most advanced textbooks his local library could supply him with, none of them contained exactly what he was looking for a detailed step-by-step guide on how to build a nuclear reactor.
Obviously, his second problem was equally thorny to build a nuclear reactor he was going to have to get his hands on some radioactive material to use as fuel. Now to the average teenage boy, even one wielding an atomic energy merit badge these obstacles would have proven Insurmountable.
But as you’ve no doubt concluded already David was no average boy Scout posing as a science professor, he wrote to every nuclear energy-related organization he could think of most of which had helpfully included their contact details in his atomic energy merit badge booklet.
He fired off letters to the department of energy the nuclear regulatory commission the American nuclear society and the Edison electric institute posing as an enthusiastic science teacher in search of extra info for his students.
For all his scientific expertise the English language wasn’t David strong’s suit. He was an abominable speller for starters, and yet somehow this ruse worked and before long he was pen pals with several leading figures in American nuclear energy, a few of whom were almost scarily happy to answer his probing questions about the ins and outs of nuclear reactors.
With plenty of help from his new friends, it wasn’t long before David had all the knowledge he needed to get started, all it was left to do was to find a large quantity of radioactive material.
And here remarkably his atomic energy merit badge booklet proved extremely handy once again detailing a whole bunch of different places a curious boy scout might go to in order to get himself dangerously irradiated.
First on his shopping list was americium which David learned could be found tucked away inside your average household smoke detector, and so David set about collecting as many of them as he could, well stealing them mostly. But he did buy a lot from a large supplier claiming he needed them for a school project.
David was able to extract a tiny amount of americium from hundreds of smoke detectors and he used it to build a homemade neutron gun, a device he could employ to create fissile material that is a substance capable of sustaining a nuclear fission chain reaction. In other words, by shooting his neutron gun at certain radioactive elements he could create fuel for a nuclear reactor. There were plenty of stumbling blocks along the way, at first he wanted to use uranium as the basis for his fuel, but he wasn’t able to find any. Not that he didn’t try.
Old enough to drive by this point David covered literally hundreds of miles through Michigan with a Geiger counter strapped to the dashboard of his car hoping to stumble across a uranium ore deposit just lying by the side of the road that might sound like a fool’s errand, but uranium is actually quite a common element around 500 times more common than gold though it’s typically found only in tiny concentrations.
when cruising for uranium proved fruitless David tried another tactic he found an industrial supplier in what was then Czechoslovakia and just bought some. It really was that easy. But when the uranium ore turned up David soon discovered that extracting enough purified uranium from it was beyond the abilities of his low-budget lab.
In the end, he settled for using a different radioisotope as the base for his reactor fuel, a form of thorium that his trusty boy scout atomic energy merit badge pamphlet told him he will be able to find in small quantities in old gas-burning camping Glanton’s.
Using mostly basic household equipment including wire cutters batteries tin foil coffee filters and pie pans David was able to extract a good quantity of thorium purifying it to levels 9000 times that found in nature. By now, he had both a functioning neutron gun and a radioisotope that in theory could be transformed into nuclear fuel but for reasons, he didn’t understand he couldn’t get it to work.
When he pointed his neutron gun at the purified thorium nothing happened luckily one of his new pen pals at the nuclear regulatory commission was happy to be of assistance, explaining that David’s neutron gun wasn’t powerful enough and that a beefier radium-powered neutron gun would surely do the job better.
David’s atomic energy merit badge booklet which by now I think we can assume had the same health and safety advisors as to the golden book of chemistry experiments helpfully informed him that radium could be found on old clock faces in the form of radium paint you may well have heard of the so-called radium girls factory workers who suffered from terrible radiation poisoning after years decorating clock faces with glow-in-the-dark radioactive paint.
David’s first thought was to tour the local junkyards in search of old clocks that might still have radium on their dials but as he drove through town one day he noticed his Geiger counter going absolutely mental, as he passed an antique shop.
After venturing inside David quickly hit the jackpot, hidden away in one of the old clocks was an entire vial of radium paint using more of his special brand of nuclear energy on shoestring wizardry David was able to purify the radium and build a more powerful neutron gun capable of transforming his thorium into a fissionable isotope of uranium.
In other words, nuclear fuel all of which means that at just 17 years of age, David Hahn had painstakingly gathered both the know-how and the materials to build himself a homemade nuclear reactor.
Specifically, he wanted to make a breeder reactor one that generates more fissile material than it consumes and is therefore capable of extracting far more energy from a given fuel source than a regular reactor. Because if you’re going to build a nuclear reactor in the garden shed you might as well do it properly.
David repurposed the material from his neutron gun for the core of his reactor which he surrounded with foil-wrapped cubes of thorium and uranium powder he monitored the homemade reactor over the next few days noting that it was quickly becoming more and more radioactive, I should point out here that David didn’t actually manage to build a genuine functioning nuclear breeder reactor but it’s thought he probably did build a functioning subcritical reactor one where there isn’t a critical mass of fuel to sustain a nuclear chain reaction but where some level of fission does take place in David’s case we’re talking about minuscule amounts of thorium fissioned but still, it was a pretty incredible feat.
It’s about this time in our story where I circled back to the scene I mentioned at the start of the article a skinny kid walking around his neighborhood his face glued to a frantically chirping Geiger counter it seems David was beginning to realize his experiments might actually be a little bit on the dangerous side especially since he was picking up significant levels of radiation hundreds of meters away from his potting shed lab. If you’ve seen HBO’s drama Chernobyl you’ll know real nuclear reactors use control rods essentially big sticks made of a substance that absorbs neutrons which are there to help slow down or stop the reactions taking place within the reactor.
David attempted to create mini control rods out of cobalt’s drill bits which he jammed into his jerry-rigged reactor but they did nothing to calm the incessant beeps of his Geiger counter.
Now as you’ve probably gathered David Hahn was not a man who was overly preoccupied with safety, I mean his favorite hobby involved handling some of the deadliest substances in existence without any kind of safety equipment whatsoever but as the levels of radiation continue to climb even he realized things were getting out of control it was time to shut down the operation before he irradiated the entire neighborhood.
David dismantles his reactor and packed most of the gear into the boot of his car intending to drive it out into the wilderness and bury it somewhere in the middle of the night. If he’d been successful the world might never have learned about this utterly mad story instead David managed to look so shifty whilst attempting to dispose of his dirty little secret in the wee hours of the morning that someone called the police.
This is how it came to be that shortly afterward a couple of officers opened up David’s boot to find it packed full of all sorts of strange objects, foil-wrapped powders, a toolbox sealed with duct tape, and beakers brimming with strange liquids.
It all looked pretty suspicious but not necessarily outright dangerous that is until David gladly asked the officers not to touch anything since it was all highly radioactive. The fallout from all of this was that David’s lab was eventually discovered when officials from the environmental protection agency descended on the shed in huge protective suits.
They measured radiation levels a thousand times higher than normal and that’s despite the fact David had removed most of the more dangerous paraphernalia prior to their visit.
To make matters even worse David’s mum worried she and her son were about to be in some seriously hot not to mention radioactive water had chucked most of the stuff David had left behind into the bin.
Leaving some monumentally unlucky bin man to take it away to the local dump spreading the radiation further, still, it’s difficult to put a number on just how many people might have been impacted by David’s reckless actions but the EPA’s estimation is that some 40000 people were at serious risk from elevated levels of radiation.
By the way as a lovely insight into just how slow government organizations often move even in the gravest of circumstances, it took the EPA(the United States Environmental Protection Agency) around a year to actually start cleaning up the site despite their own report stating it presented an imminent and substantial endangerment to public health.
Whilst it’s easy to read to this story and marvel at just how irresponsible David was and he really was, don’t get me wrong there’s no denying he showed incredible curiosity resourcefulness ingenuity and intelligence in the building of his reactor alongside a dangerously high dose of stupidity naivety and radiation.
Obviously speaking of radiation David was offered a full medical examination to investigate just how much damage he’d done to himself by pissing around with highly radioactive substances for most of his teens. But he turned it down by his own estimations he’d only chopped five years off his life though you have to wonder whether he avoided the examination because he was afraid to know the truth.
As it happens he would be dead at 39 the radiation poisoning had nothing to do with it after suffering from a string of mental health issues David died in 2016 from accidental intoxication after swallowing a cocktail of alcohol fentanyl and allergy medication.
His life had never been quite the same after the government shut down his lab in 1995 and his world had been rocked even further when his mother committed suicide the following year.
David eventually joined the navy and funnily enough ended up working on a nuclear submarine, but it turned out to be more of a case of cruel irony than nuclear heaven since his lowly rank meant he wasn’t allowed anywhere near the technology so enthralled him he was eventually discharged on medical grounds.
David’s obsession with atomic energy never went away he was investigated by the FBI in 2007 on suspicion of attempting to build a second nuclear reactor and he was eventually charged with stealing yet more smoke detectors we all know what he wanted to do with those in his mug shots after the arrests his face was covered in sores most likely from prolonged exposure to radiation.
It’s difficult to know what David might have achieved had he been given the tools to explore his talent in a more controlled environment.
Perhaps he still would have found ways to push the boundaries too far disregarding his own safety and that of others in his pursuit of atomic obsession. Or perhaps he would have gone on to become a scientist of great renown contributing to breakthroughs for the betterment of society.
Sadly we’ll never know.