You Glow Boy!
The story of a teenager’s nuclear ambitions.
Written by Science & TechnologyFiled under
The typical adolescent male dreams of getting accepted to an Ivy League school, becoming a rock star, or escorting a supermodel to the senior prom. High school student David Hahn fantasized about something even more improbable. This mostly unremarkable young man from suburban Detroit could hardly be bothered with normal teenage diversions. Hahn was too busy collecting radioactive elements for his homemade nuclear reactor, which he was sure he could complete, if only he could conceal his activities from parents, friends and teachers, not to mention law enforcement and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Before police accidentally discovered his exploits in the summer of 1994 this obsessively driven teen advanced his hazardous experiments far enough to warrant federal intervention and a cleanup effort befitting a Superfund site. Hahn’s story—told in the new book “The Radioactive Boy Scout: The True Story of a Boy and his Backyard Nuclear Reactor,” by Ken Silverstein (Random House)—begins in Commerce Township, Michigan, and ends at a nuclear waste dump in the Utah desert.
Hahn’s uncommon devotion to science manifested itself at a young age. Although a below-average student, he had an insatiable curiosity for all things scientific. During his pre-teen years he spent an inordinate amount of time disassembling and rebuilding mechanical and electric products like radios and toasters. While his friends were outside at play, Hahn was inside conducting experiments with household cleaning products and brewing noxious concoctions using his ever-growing assemblage of beakers, Bunsen burners, test tubes and chemicals.
A pivotal source of early inspiration was an out-of-print copy of “The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments,” by Robert Brent (1960), which included recipes for several hundred experiments, many of them volatile and potentially life threatening. In today’s litigation-happy culture, a youth-oriented chemistry book might feature innocuous experiments involving yeast and soil. By comparison, “The Golden Book…” provided detailed instructions for producing dangerous substances like chlorine gas—experiments that the young Hahn pursued with reckless enthusiasm. Not surprisingly, he routinely visited the ophthalmologist’s office or emergency room. By the time Hahn began experimenting with radioactive materials in his mid-teens he had already suffered: An extended period of impaired vision (red phosphorous explosion); a second-degree burn (propane stove); a severe sunburn (personal tanning lights); electric shock (hot-rodded bug zapper), and even knocked himself unconsciousness (sniffed homemade chloroform). Sometimes the damage was merely cosmetic, such as when he misjudged the proportion of ingredients in a homemade hair-dye and his hair turned green.
For the most part, his parents—Ken Hahn, a mechanical engineer, and Patty Spaulding, a homemaker—were supportive of their son’s hobby and only moderately concerned about his safety. Of course, support turned to anger when an explosion or chemical spill threatened the physical integrity of their home. But because Ken was frequently consumed by work and Patty was preoccupied with her own mental health problems the couple failed to consistently practice an expected level of parental oversight. “She was not a watchdog and he was very fixated on his work,” says Silverstein, referring to David’s parents. It’s also possible that both were intimidated by their son’s intellect: “Neither of them completed high school and I think they were very much awed by David’s intelligence,” he continues.
By the time David was ten years old, Ken and Patty were estranged, each moving in with new partners. This further fractured his home life and resulted in even less consistent supervision. Splitting time between his parents’ respective homes Hahn had enough personal freedom—and enough guile—to effectively conceal his most ambitious experiments. “It wasn’t just a lack of oversight—it was his own ability to hide what he was doing. I give him credit. David was a very clever kid,” notes Silverstein.
However, Ken was concerned enough about his son’s fixation with science that he urged David to diversify his interests and join the Boy Scouts of America—Troop 371—in his father’s new hometown of Clinton Township, Michigan. Ken’s well-intentioned move backfired as Hahn began studying nuclear energy under the tutelage of a local scout counselor. Before long, the counselor was teaching Hahn how to use a Geiger counter (a device that detects radiation) and where to find radioactive materials in nature. When it came time to fulfill his merit badge requirements Hahn selected atomic energy as one of his electives and completed the atomic energy merit badge program almost effortlessly.
Boy Meets Girl
Although Hahn could undeniably be described as a science geek, he maintained the same interests as any other teenage boy. In other words, he wanted nothing less than a girlfriend on one arm, a car in the driveway and enough spending money to pursue his favorite activities. In order to finance his expensive experiments Hahn started his own lawn service and worked part-time at a Kroger supermarket. Ken took care of the car issue, buying his son a used Pontiac 6000. Finding a girlfriend was the hardest part, but Hahn managed to develop a steady relationship with the younger Heather Beaudette, who somehow accepted his frustrating tendency to steer all conversations toward science. Most boys would have made Beaudette their number one priority, but experimenting remained Hahn’s true love, and reading about the exploits of Marie and Pierre Curie (Nobel Prize winners who studied radioactivity and discovered the elements radium and polonium) captivated his interest like nothing else.
In the same spirit of inventiveness that possessed the Curies, Hahn began collecting information on nuclear power and exploring ways to obtain radioactive elements. Venturing out to junkyards and antique stores with his Geiger counter he uncovered old clocks that had been painted with radium. He obtained thorium from the mantles of Coleman gas lanterns (which, at the time, were coated with thorium dioxide). And he removed americium from countless smoke detectors. “Sometimes the way he obtained these things was more interesting that what he obtained,” begins Silverstein. “He wrote away to a smoke detector company and said he needed detectors for a school project he was doing. David convinced the company to send him a bunch that were just sitting in a warehouse. His father told me he came home and found boxes and boxes of smoke detectors had mysteriously arrived,” continues Silverstein, who says that Hahn would sometimes try to send back the merchandise after extracting the radioactive element in question. “David bought a bunch of gun scopes from a gun shop and returned them. The owner was furious because they were all perfect except that the tritium was gone.”
It wasn’t long before Hahn discovered that questioning experts via mail was the most sensible way for a teenager like himself to obtain information about nuclear reactions, largely because it allowed him to remain faceless and anonymous. He wrote to agencies like the Department of Energy (DOE), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and the American Nuclear Society, often posing as “Professor Hahn.” Although his requests for information were more often than not ignored—atrocious spelling and the conspicuous absence of academic letterhead may have been factors—it’s ironic that the NRC was one of the more helpful government agencies, providing him with a list of commercial sources for radioactive materials. “He got a lot of information from nuclear trade organizations and significant information from the government,” says Silverstein. “It was not like they were sending him plans to build a nuclear reactor. But in his letters he sounded like a professor and he was able to obtain information that he needed to advance the experiments. He [even] got samples of ore that contained uranium from a company in Czechoslovakia.”
An Unlikely Simpsons Fan
Hahn began pursuing his dream during a time period in which the public maintained a deep skepticism about nuclear energy. Chernobyl was still fresh in the public’s collective mind and The Simpsons—a popular television program that relentlessly skewers the nuclear power industry—was already a huge hit. Yet Hahn—who demonstrated blind allegiance to all things nuclear—enjoyed the antics of Bart and Homer Simpson while conveniently ignoring the show’s sarcastic portrayal of the nuclear power industry. “He was typical of a teenager in that he wasn’t a deep thinker,” explains Silverstein.
Hahn’s single-minded focus served him well when it came to the almost impossible task ahead of him. Although it was time consuming and painstaking work to purchase or collect commercial products and extract the relevant elements, Hahn eventually amassed enough radioactive material to begin working towards his dream—a model nuclear breeder reactor. In the real world, creating a reliable breeder reactor would be a daunting task even for professional nuclear scientists with millions of dollars in resources and unfettered access to large amounts of highly enriched uranium. What makes a breeder reactor so alluring as an energy source is that it produces more fuel than it uses, generating power all the while. But because it requires highly enriched fuel (uranium-238 and plutonium-239) and is cooled with highly explosive liquid sodium, a breeder is considerably more dangerous and tricky to operate than a conventional reactor. “I believe that David did actually think he could build a breeder reactor,” begins Silverstein. “When you’re a teenager you know things on one level but you don’t really know or understand it on another level. Of course, he had no way of getting his hands on anything like 30 pounds of enriched uranium to do it.”
Yet Hahn was undeterred by the obstacles. He proceeded to set up a lab in the potting shed behind his mother’s home and outfitted it with the kind of equipment one might find in a high school chemistry class—beakers and a chart of the periodic table, for instance. Unlike chemistry class, safety equipment was a low priority and Hahn took precautions only when it was convenient, ignoring the warning of the “CAUSHON” sign he posted on an interior wall. The fact that favorite scientist Marie Curie died of leukemia (thought to be caused by prolonged exposure to radium and other radioactive material) wasn’t sufficient motivation. “He got a led-lined suit from an emergency-preparedness agency but he wouldn’t wear the suit when it was too hot. He’d wear a gas mask every once in a while,” says Silverstein. “The combination of a teenagers’ sense of invulnerability and immortality combined with this absolute fixation and obsession….He thought about safety but figured, ‘What could possibly happen?’”
Boy Meets … Nuclear Fission!?
Hahn’s first step was to build a neutron gun that he could use to fire neutrons at thorium-232, thereby transforming it into uranium-233 (a substitute for plutonium). But here—as with virtually every stage of his work—Hahn had to make compromises due to his lack of access to materials. Although he wanted beryllium to produce the neutrons necessary to fire his gun, he was initially forced to substitute aluminum (although not before naively contacting chemical suppliers and inquiring about the availability of beryllium, a highly controlled substance often used in the production of atomic bombs).
After constructing a crude neutron gun, Hahn sought to procure fissionable elements—those capable of splitting and releasing energy. First he tried to purify pitchblende (a massive variety of the mineral uraninite) and black uranium ore. But lacking the sophisticated equipment available to adult nuclear scientists he got nowhere. Instead, Hahn went to great lengths to surreptitiously acquire hundreds of thorium dioxide-coated gas lantern mantles from a local camping store. Taking a blowtorch to them, he reduced the mantles to a large pile of thorium ash, which he purified by placing the ash into a ball of aluminum foil with potassium nitrate powder and heating it in a pan of oil. As Silverstein notes in his book: “David’s method purified thorium to at least 9,000 times the level found in nature and 170 times the level that requires NRC licensing.”
Hahn then had the good fortune to find an old wall clock in an antique store that got an extreme reaction from his Geiger counter. “At first he thought the dial was just painted with radium. But the painter had left a vial of radium paint inside the clock,” says Silverstein. To concentrate the radium he heated, mixed and strained it along with a sample of powdered barium sulfate he acquired from an acquaintance at a local hospital.
However, despite all this legwork the neutron gun didn’t work to his satisfaction. Turning to a tried-and-true source, he wrote to an isotope specialist at the DOE who guessed that his neutrons were “too fast.” The specialist told him “tritium was used to slow down neutrons and in that way they could be absorbed by other elements,” says Silverstein. Hence the aforementioned purchase of tritium-filled gun sights—the last step in producing a working neutron gun, which enabled him to make the thorium increasingly radioactive.
It’s “The Bomb?”
Hahn let the neutron gun work its magic for several days—giddily using his Geiger counter to monitor the shed and surrounding area. When he began picking up abnormal levels of radiation down the block from his mother’s house he began to panic. At the suggestion of a fellow science geek friend from high school he attempted to control the reaction by placing cobalt drill bits (purchased from a hardware store) between the core and the thorium. When that failed he decided to temporarily dismantle his so-called reactor, remanding some elements to his bedroom and the rest to the trunk of his car.
Coincidentally, less than 24 hours later, Hahn was idling in his car when approached by police—who had merely suspected him of stealing tires. When officers searched the Pontiac’s trunk they were horrified and perplexed at the same time. “They actually thought they had found an A-bomb,” advises Silverstein. “There was a metal tool chest that had been taped shut with duct tape and they found mercury switches and all sorts of weird cubes filled with strange ash. It was just bad luck for David that he got stopped by the police with all this stuff in his car.”
Since the situation presented circumstances that the local police were not equipped to deal with the Michigan State Bomb Squad and Department of Public Health (DPH) were called to the scene to implement the Federal Radiological Emergency Response Plan (FRERP)—procedures designed to manage peacetime radiological emergencies. The authorities confiscated the contents of Hahn’s trunk and searched his father’s home for other hazardous materials. However, at no time were the authorities made aware that Ken’s current wife, Kathy, was not David’s mother but his stepmother. In fact, they didn’t learn of Patty’s existence—and the existence of the potting shed—until three months later, when the DPH called Ken’s home for a follow-up interview and was advised that David was at his mother’s house.
Ultimately, Hahn confessed that he had conducted the lion’s share of his experiments on his mother’s property. The DPH soon paid a visit to Patty’s house, measuring the radiation levels in and around the shed before sealing it closed. The DPH found radiation levels as high as 50,000 CPM’s (counts per minute)—“about one thousand times higher than normal levels of background radiation,” according to Silverstein—and called the EPA for help. In the meantime, Patty threw most of Hahn’s remaining materials in the garbage, fearing that the government would hold her responsible for her son’s actions.
However, the neighbors remained in the dark about the investigation—at least until men in white moon suits and respirators fanned out over Patty’s lawn one day in June of 1995. “They [the EPA] came in, cut up the shed with saws and put everything in barrels. They sent it out to Utah and buried it in this low-level dump site,” says Silverstein, referring to a facility operated by Envirocare, a company that specializes in radioactive material dispersal solutions. “Some of the neighbors knew David was messing around with radioactive stuff [one even claimed to have seen the shed glowing] but nobody knew how far he had gotten or they would have been more nervous.”
As for whether anyone was harmed by Hahn’s experiments, only time will tell. “In justifying the federal intervention, they do say that 40,000 people were potentially at risk,” recalls Silverstein, who expressed more concern about Hahn’s health and notes that the youngster suffered a radiation burn on his wrist (from tritium) during the course of his experiments. “I fear David may have harmed himself. He was offered the chance to undergo a full body scan—which he accepted and then declined at the last minute. I think he was afraid of what he might find out. But I don’t think anyone in the neighborhood has anything to worry about.”
In the end, Hahn and his family never suffered any legal or financial consequences. “The authorities considered charging him with certain things but didn’t because he was a teenager. He did things he shouldn’t have done but wasn’t malicious,” reminds Silverstein. “They also considered charging his family with the cost of the cleanup—which I think was $60,000—but that would have been a huge sum of money to those people.”
Today, one burning question remains unanswered: If given enough time could Hahn have constructed a functional model reactor? “Given the possibilities of experimenting in a backyard lab he got about as far as anybody could reasonably expect to get,” opines Silverstein. “But I don’t think he could have gotten much further. Realistically he wasn’t going to obtain this stuff [radioactive elements] in sufficient quantity or purity to go much beyond where he was at.”
Of course, if Hahn ever decides to resume his experiments, the World Wide Web might make it easier to pursue his nuclear dream. “He did everything without the help of the Internet,” says Silverstein, but acknowledges that some materials might be easier to come by nowadays. “David told me, ‘I could get beryllium now,’” clearly implying that he found a supplier online.
At the moment Hahn isn’t a threat to anyone’s health—except possibly a foreign enemy. After serving a tour of duty in the Navy—stationed on, of all places, a nuclear aircraft carrier—he decided to re-enlist in the military, putting off the chance to continue his formal education. “I think David still harbors scientific ambitions,” says Silverstein, noting that his commanding officers took great pains to keep him away from the nuclear works on the USS Enterprise. “He is still interested in uranium and nuclear materials but right now he’s in the Marines. So in the near term, at least, he’s not going to get anywhere.”
Ironically, Hahn may have more natural ability than most individuals who pursue careers in the sciences, yet has never achieved what most people would consider conventional success. It seems that Hahn could use the focus, guidance and support system that a traditional academic setting might provide. According to Silverstein, Hahn would also benefit immeasurably from a healthier perspective on nuclear energy: “He was never terribly philosophical or reflective about the world at large or even anything having to do with nuclear power. He was very focused on the science and that was it. He didn’t think about the ethics, the morality, the economics—anything, but simply can it be done?”