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The Weird Case of the Radioactive Boy Scout

We all have hobbies and pastimes, something we like to do to unwind and better ourselves. When you have free time, what do you do? Go out for a walk, perhaps read a book, play sports, paint, or listen to music? Perhaps you spend your time building a nuclear reactor in your backyard? No? Well, in the 1990s this was what one young high school boy took to doing in his spare time, and it is a case every bit as strange as you might expect. This is the strange story of the Radioactive Boy Scout.

Building a nuclear reactor is a strange choice of hobby. Yet this is exactly what happened with 17-year-old David Hahn, who in 1994 was an Eagle Scout with the Boy Scouts of America in Clinton Township, Michigan. He was for the most part mostly just a normal high school student, nothing particularly special or exceptional about him, but he was very active with the Boy Scouts, had an intense interest in science and chemistry, performing experiments in his mother’s basement. At the time, he was looking to get his next big merit badge. In this case the merit badge was the Atomic Energy Merit Badge, which yes, is actually a thing. Well, Hahn wanted that merit badge, and he went about getting it in spectacular fashion.

The first thing he had to do to start his misguided project to build an actual working freaking nuclear reactor in his backyard was to collect radioactive material. How does one go about this, you ask? Do they raid a nuclear storage site, make contact with Russian spies, what? Well, actually, just take apart a whole bunch of smoke detectors, camping lanterns, glow-in-the-dark watches, and other random household items, it would seem. Many smoke detectors contain americium, camping lanterns contain thorium- 232, glow-in-the-dark watches have trace amounts of radium-226 in them, and other materials can be gained from various common household products. For the layman, these are in very small, harmless amounts in these products, but they are indeed radioactive as all get out, and when you amass thousands and thousands of them, as Hahn did from Army surplus stores and other sources, you have your basic ingredients for creating a nuclear reactor. He also collected a vast number of gun sights, which contain tritium, lithium from countless batteries, uranium (!) that he seems to have just ordered online from Czechoslovakia (wait, what?), and other professional grade lab materials that he procured, along with crucial information on how to build his project, by posing as a scientist and physics teacher in letters to various academic institutions and even the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who seemed to have been more than happy to walk him through the finer points of the process.

David Hahn

When he had accumulated what he needed, Hahn went about trying to use low-level isotopes to transform samples of thorium and uranium into fissionable isotopes in his mother’s backyard in Commerce Township, Michigan. In the end, all held together with duct tape and not regulated in any way, he had his homemade reactor. Well, almost. It was supposed to be what is called a “breeder reactor,” but was in the end more accurately what is called a “neutron source,” as none of it was ever actually fissile. What is was, however, was highly radioactive. Hahn soon realized this with a Geiger counter he had procured, and he soon discovered that this radiation was spreading throughout the block. Panicked, he hid the “reactor” in his car’s trunk while he tried to figure out what to do. Unfortunately, he was stopped by police on an unrelated incident, and when they tried to search his car he calmly told him that they should be careful about the trunk because there was a nuclear reactor in there. Not a normal traffic stop, then.

The discovery immediately put into effect the Federal Radiological Emergency Response Plan, and not only was the whole area evacuated, but it was cleaned up by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a Superfund clean-up site, costing the state around $60,000. Hahn’s lab was dismantled, and the reactor itself was carefully taken to the Great Salt Lake Desert and buried far from civilization. Hahn, who in the media had gained the nickname “The Radioactive Boy Scout,” got the merit badge though, so it wasn’t a total loss. He also had all criminal charges dropped. In the end, Hahn learned his lesson and it was all sort of brushed off as the goofy shenanigans of a kid, right? Well, not exactly.

Some of Hahn’s materials for his reactor

Hahn went on to join the Navy and pursue a career as a nuclear specialist, but this never did pan out, and he was forced to go back to trying to do it himself. In April of 2007 he was investigated by the FBI under suspicion that he had made a reactor that he kept in his kitchen freezer. It came to light that Hahn had turned to drugs and had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and although no evidence was found at the time of an actual reactor, some witnesses claimed he was most certainly making one. The FBI kept eyes on Hahn, and in August of 2007 he was arrested for larceny after getting caught trying to steal smoke detectors from his apartment building in order to amass materials for his project. When he was brought in, Hahn was found to have a face covered with seeping sores, thought to have been from radiation exposure during his experiments. He would be sentenced to 90 days in jail and undergo medical treatment for his condition. In 2016, David Hahn would die at the age of 39, after taking a cocktail of alcohol, diphenhydramine, and fentanyl, which was deemed an accident.

It is a tragic end to a young man who was either a genius, a madman, or both. It is truly astonishing that this kid managed to achieve what he did. How is it that he was able to pull this off, and if he could do it, how many others could as well? Do you have a nuclear reactor sitting in your backyard or freezer? I know I don’t, but I sure would like to know who does. It is a rather shocking case that was oddly not very well reported on at the time, either by slipping through the cracks or by design, depending on who you ask. Why is it that this case was kind of brushed off? How is it that this young kid could manage to come so far along as to cause a bona fide nuclear emergency? It is all so disturbing, but at least we can rest easy in knowing that the Boy Scout Atomic Energy Merit Badge has since been discontinued.