That time a Boy Scout built a nuclear reactor out of common household items
Imagine looking out your window to see an eerie green glow resonating from your neighbor’s shed. Or seeing government trucks being loaded with barrels marked radioactive by men dressed in hazmat suits outside your home.
The residents of Golf Manor, Michigan, don’t have to imagine it, because in 1995, a young teenage boy built a nuclear breeder reactor in his mother’s potting shed, an idea he came up with while working on his Atomic Energy merit badge in attempt to earn Eagle Scout status.
It wasn’t until David was interviewed for an article in Harper’s Magazine that the entire story was told. Even investigators from various federal agencies were shocked to find out some of the details.
At an age when most adolescents are consumed with sports, friends, or dating, Hahn spent his free time conducting chemical experiments. Much to the chagrin of his parents, he had several chemical spills and even created an explosion that rocked their tiny house and left David “lying semi-conscious on the floor, his eyebrows smoking.”
Even his scout troop was not immune to his scientific curiosity. David once appeared at a scout meeting, “with a bright orange face caused by an overdose of canthaxanthin, which he was taking to test methods of artificial tanning.” Then there was the night at camp where his fellow scouts accidentally ignited a pile of powdered magnesium he had brought to make fireworks.
There’s no question that David was increasingly bold in his attempts to learn more about the chemical compounds of our world, but even with the goal in mind to build a nuclear breeder reactor, you have to wonder how he obtained the radioactive elements.
David worked a series of jobs at fast-food joints and grocery stores after school to finance his experiments. He admitted to Harper’s that he used several aliases and a string of mail communications with individuals working for agencies that control nuclear elements. None were as helpful as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, where David was able to engage the agency’s director, Donald Erb.
Erb provided David with a list of contacts who provide commercial sale of some elements and how to harvest others. David broke apart smoke detectors to obtain americium-241, commercial gas lanterns provided him thorium-232, and with the help of a Geiger counter, he found an antique luminous clock that contained a vial of radium paint used to keep the clock face glowing. He even purchased $1000 worth of batteries to extract the lithium.
After several attempts to create energy, David was finally successful but he soon learned that his small reactor was producing so much radiation that it was spreading through his neighborhood. Unfortunately, his safety precautions only consisted of wearing a makeshift lead poncho and throwing away his clothes and shoes following a session in the potting shed. So he took apart the reactor.
Stashing some of the more radioactive elements in his house and the rest in his car, he was later found by the police after a call was made about a young man trying to steal tires. The police opened his trunk to find an array of scientific materials and a tool box locked with a padlock and sealed with duct tape. The police were rightly concerned about the box, and after David advised that it was radioactive, they were worried he had a nuclear bomb.
While being questioned by the police, David’s parents became afraid that they would lose their house, so they ransacked his room and his “laboratory” and tossed everything they could find. This left the authorities with nothing but what was in the car.
“The funny thing is, they only got the garbage, and the garbage got all the good stuff,” Hahn told Harper’s.
David never went back to his experiments and later served four years in the U.S. Navy – including service aboard the USS Enterprise, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. He also briefly served in the Marine Corps before returning home to Michigan. In 2016, David died from alcohol poisoning – not from exposure to radiation.
Though David Hahn is gone, the small town of Golf Manor will never forget their “Radioactive Boy.”