The Radioactive Boy Scout: The Frightening True Story of a Whiz Kid and His Homemade Nuclear Reactor

The Radioactive Boy Scout: The Frightening True Story of a Whiz Kid and His Homemade Nuclear Reactor

by Ken Silverstein


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Growing up in suburban Detroit, David Hahn was fascinated by science. While he was working on his Atomic Energy badge for the Boy Scouts, David’s obsessive attention turned to nuclear energy. Throwing caution to the wind, he plunged into a new project: building a model nuclear reactor in his backyard garden shed.

Posing as a physics professor, David solicited information on reactor design from the U.S. government and from industry experts. Following blueprints he found in an outdated physics textbook, David cobbled together a crude device that threw off toxic levels of radiation. His wholly unsupervised project finally sparked an environmental emergency that put his town’s forty thousand suburbanites at risk. The EPA ended up burying his lab at a radioactive dumpsite in Utah. This offbeat account of ambition and, ultimately, hubris has the narrative energy of a first-rate thriller.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812966602
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/11/2005
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 208,582
Product dimensions: 5.21(w) x 7.99(h) x 0.51(d)
Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

About the Author

KEN SILVERSTEIN is an investigative reporter for the Washington, D.C., bureau of the Los Angeles Times. A former contributing editor to Harper’s Magazine, in which a portion of this story first appeared, he has written for Mother Jones, The Nation, and The American Prospect, among others. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Roots: The Making of a Teenage Scientist

—The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments, 1960

David Hahn’s earliest memory seems appropriate in light of later events; it is of conducting an experiment in the bathroom when he was perhaps four years old. With his father at work and his unmindful mother listening to music in the living room of the family’s small apartment in suburban Detroit, he rummaged through the medicine chest and undersink cabinet and gathered toothpaste, soap, medicines, cold cream, nail polish remover, and rubbing alcohol. He mixed everything in a metal bowl and stirred in the contents of an ashtray used by his mother, a chain-smoker. “I was trying to get a magical reaction, to create something new,” he remembered later. “I thought that the more things I threw in, the stronger the reaction I’d get.”

After he finished blending the ingredients together, young David was disappointed to see that all he had in the bowl was a lifeless, grayish glob. Hence, he went back to the cabinet beneath the sink and pulled out a bright-blue bottle, which years later he realized was probably a drain-cleaning product. He uncapped the bottle and poured a healthy amount into the bowl; soon, the mixture began to bubble and threatened to boil over. In a panic, David flushed the contents of the bowl down the toilet. His parents never knew what happened, and David promised himself that he would never again try something so foolish. It was the first of many similar vows made over the years, all broken in short order. It also established a pattern: experiment, trouble, cover-up.

If David was a slightly odd child, his parents, lost in their own preoccupations, hardly noticed. His father, Ken Hahn, grew up in the Detroit area along with his four brothers and sisters. Ken’s father was a skilled tradesman, a tool-and-die maker who worked for General Electric and Pratt & Whitney. At night, Ken would sit with his dad and pore over blueprints of the tools his dad made during his workday. By the time he reached Henry Ford High School, Ken had decided to pursue a similar career, though he was fascinated by the idea of drawing the blueprints, not building the tools. He enrolled in a college-prep program for mechanical engineering and after graduating attended Lawrence Technological University, a local school.

Ken was so wrapped up with his engineering studies that he had little time for dating or romance. But while a sophomore at Lawrence Tech, he and a friend were cruising Woodward Avenue just outside of Detroit when they spotted two pretty girls driving alongside his Chevy Chevelle. After signaling for them to pull into a Big Boy hamburger drive-in, Ken zeroed in on nineteen-year-old Patty Spaulding and came away with her phone number. For Ken, it was love at first sight. “She was cute as a bug,” he remembered later, proudly showing off a picture of a beautiful young woman with a bouncy smile.

But Patty, having recently ended a stormy relationship, was initially aloof. She had not had many positive experiences with men. Patty had been raised in a poor region of West Virginia, and her father had abandoned the family when she was young. Her mother, Lucille, had packed up and moved the family to Detroit, where they had relatives. Lucille found work at a doctor’s office, and the family moved into the middle class, albeit at the lower end of that category. It wasn’t an easy life, but it was better than West Virginia.

Ken was a determined suitor, though. After a four-year courtship during which he displayed the same tenacity that he normally reserved for work-related engineering challenges, Ken finally wore down Patty’s resistance. They were married in July 1974.

Like those of all residents of contemporary Detroit, Ken and Patty’s lives were shaped physically, economically, and socially by the automobile industry. The metropolitan area was then home to Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler, as well as to thousands of small shops that produced machine parts, brake linings, and industrial tools for the Big Three automakers. Soon after the wedding, Ken found a job as a mechanical engineer at a General Motors subcontractor, and he and Patty moved into a suburban apartment complex not far from his office. David, their only child, was born on October 30, 1976.

Ken worked long hours, designing robotic welding machines and other assembly-line equipment. He left home punctually at six in the morning, rarely returning before six in the evening and sometimes not until after David had gone to bed. Tightly wound, Ken was a dutiful husband and father but not a demonstrative one. Combined with his constant air of preoccupation, his reserve must have been confounding to a child. Even when Ken was around the house, there was little interaction between father—David remembered him as “always off in a fog”—and son, who developed an especially close bond with his mother.

In contrast to her husband, Patty was outgoing and affectionate. She loved children and painted watercolors of kids at play, some which were displayed for years at the Detroit Children’s Hospital. Patty lacked Ken’s focus, though, and had a hard time sticking with anything. She’d dropped out of high school three weeks prior to graduation and, despite several attempts, never got around to completing her GED. For a time, she talked about becoming a model and even put together a portfolio before abruptly abandoning the idea.

Patty doted on her son and gave him the attention he couldn’t get from his anxious and distant father. When David wanted a basketball hoop in his room, Patty made Ken put one up. If David liked a song, she’d play it for him over and over again. As David remembered, “My mom might be sleeping in her room when I got home from [elementary] school, but she always popped up to see me, and we’d do my homework together. If I did a drawing at school, she always put it up on the wall and bragged about how great it was to whoever came over, even the plumber. I thought she was the most wonderful person in the world.”

But troubles began to dog Patty, though David was largely unaware of what was happening. She developed the drinking problem that ran in her family. A few years after David was born, she began to hear voices and thought strangers were after her. She was diagnosed with depression and paranoid schizophrenia. A variety of antipsychotic medications were prescribed. Fearing someone was trying to kidnap David, Patty took to changing the locks on the doors. She heard ghosts in the apartment building and would take David by the hand, creep down the basement stairs with a flashlight, and make sure nothing was lurking there. Ken hired a retired woman who lived nearby to check up on Patty and his son when he was at work, but by the time David was four Patty’s condition had deteriorated so badly that she had to be committed to a mental hospital.

To explain her absence, Ken told David that his mother had been hurt when her car skidded off the road during a rainstorm. David suspected the story wasn’t true—it couldn’t have provided much comfort in any case—and felt completely abandoned. Upon hearing that Patty would have to “be away for a while,” he hid behind the couch in the living room, clasped his knees to his chin, and rocked himself back and forth.

Patty returned home six months later, and though she wasn’t hospitalized again after her release her illness lingered and deepened. She rarely worked and spent most of her time at the apartment, caring for David when he wasn’t at school and watching TV, listening to Top 40 hits, and playing cards with her girlfriends when he was. Though Patty still pampered David, she became somewhat less attentive. Left on his own, David developed a wild imagination. He built elaborate sets in his room—caves built from pillows and forts constructed in his closet—on which he could act out games with make-believe space explorers and superheroes. He fantasized endlessly about comic-book hero Spider-Man, the alias of Peter Parker, a dweebish, bespectacled high school student who gained superpowers after being bitten by a radioactive spider.

Meanwhile, the marriage between David’s parents was falling apart, riven by financial troubles and Ken’s frustration with Patty’s failure to look for work or, in his view, deal with her mental troubles. As David peered out from his bedroom, his parents would scream at each other across the living room, and on occasion Patty would hurl a vase or a lamp at the wall. In 1985, when David was nine years old, his parents finally split, and Patty lost custody of her son. It was then that David’s troubles really began.

David stayed with his father, who soon began dating a GM engineer named Kathy Missig. Ken and Kathy—whose daughter from a previous marriage, Kristina, was David’s elder by a year—didn’t marry until six years later, but within a year of meeting they bought a house together in Clinton Township, a conservative working-class area about twenty miles north of downtown Detroit.

Thanks to Detroit’s devotion to the automobile, urban planning and mass transit were, and are, almost unknown to the region. Clinton Township, like other outlying areas, was an endless sprawl of fast-food restaurants, strip malls, shopping centers, and other signposts of suburbia. The Hahns new home was a small but cozy split-level. The family room boasted birch paneling and a fireplace, while David’s bedroom, on the top floor, looked out on a diamond-shaped deck in the backyard, with the requisite affordable luxuries of a barbecue grill, patio furniture, and an aboveground swimming pool.

Ken remained wrapped up with his job and was rarely at home and even more rarely available to his son. He’d often get back long past the dinner hour, so Kathy would leave a plate of food warming for him in the oven. David saw his dad as a hard worker but conservative and living a boring lifestyle. “He talked a lot about work and people I didn’t know anything about,” he said. “He was always telling me that he didn’t spend much money, just a few dollars a day. I wanted my life to be more exciting than that.”

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Radioactive Boy Scout (Turtleback School & Library Binding Edition) 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 28 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a good read for those who like a true science related story. The flow of the book is well done, both with the main story and the sidebar stories about chemistry and nuclear history. It was quite amazing what this teenager was able to pull off in his backyard science shed. I just hope he has not done any long term serious damage to his health.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book titled, The Radioactive Boy-Scout is not as interesting as it sounds.               There is a lot of science in the book, however,  none of it is explained. This takes me out of the book. Readers need to be intrigued to read a book like this. In the 3rd act of the book, he makes something called a neutron gun. Not once did it enlighten me on what a neutron gun is or how it works. The tagline of the book, “The story of a whiz kid who builds a homemade nuclear reactor.” has a problem. He doesn’t start to build a nuclear reactor until well after the 3rd act starts. It might as well be changed to, “The story of a whiz kid.”That would be much more truthful. The book sounds so interesting by the tagline, but ¾ of the book is just him finding elements on the periodic table that the reader doesn’t even know what they are. Not only that but the characters are boring and bland. His girlfriend, Heather, and his step dad, Michael, don’t object to what David does or says. If I knew David Hahn personally, if he went to my school, I would try to avoid him as much as possible. There is a part of the book where he blows up part of his Dads house with a dangerous radioactive material, and Heather acts like it’s normal. I understand it’s based on a true story and that’s what really happened, but for the sake of the book, Ken Silverstein should have taken some creative power and made some of the characters a little more interesting. or at the very least, flesh them out alittle. Tell their backstory like how Heather met David or how Michael met Davids mom. This is how the book fails at being interesting, even though the material it’s based on is one of the most interesting news stories of all time. This is why I only give the book 2 stars. Curtis CHMS14
afahey622 More than 1 year ago
The Radioactive Boy Scout was a very interesting read. The author, Ken Silverstein is obviously very passionate about physics and science in general, as you read you can tell that he painstakingly poured over each detail in the book, and that he researched a tremendous amount. Various points of views are used as Silverstein interviewed many of the characters including the main character, David, and the reader sees the thoughts of these characters a few years after the fact and what they had thought at the time. I found this book to be very intriguing, however the plot became hard to follow at times, and the vocabulary was something one would expect spewing from the mouth of a college level professor during a lecture on radiation and nuclear reactions! For a teen not particularly interested in science, this would not be the best book, however for a physics or chemistry major, this book would be fascinating! It practically offers step by step instructions on making a nuclear reactor. Had the plot not been so centered on the actual science involved in making David's various "experiments", than perhaps I would have found it more entertaining, however the book was fine as is. Give it a try, what's the worst that could happen!?
eleanor_eader on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
David Hahn, Boy Scout, almost single-mindedly obsessed with science, attempted to build a breeder reactor ¿ a type of nuclear reactor that produces more of its own fuel than it needs to power it ¿ in his mother¿s backyard shed. This is the story of how close he came, and how the extent of his experiments remained undiscovered for so long. Wilfully unaware of the risks, and misguided though his attempt to build a breeder reactor without any sort of ventilation, safeguarding or guidance, it must be said that this degree of focus is the sort that often enables people to achieve great things. It is no less intriguing to read the biography of someone whose dedication and off-the-wall genius peaked a little too early, and fixed on something so enormously unsafe, than someone who took risks and achieved their goal. David Hahn himself is a rather sad subject ¿ that is, until Silverstein depicts him poring over the Golden Book of Science Experiments, passing himself off as a professor to gain insight into technical difficulties and bombarding his neighbourhood with radiation (while thankfully never achieving `critical mass¿). His reckless desire for a breakthrough and the attendant acclaim are so understandable that the reader can forgive him his blindness and follow Silverstein¿s account with a sort of breathless awe at ¿ yes, the stupidity ¿ but also the determination. Aside from David¿s story, the best aspect of this book is the insight into the different materials involved in nuclear energy, how they are formed, how they react and decay, what actually happens to them during processes involving irradiation or detonation¿ the science behind the story and the enthusiasm for the science that Silverstein brings to the book make this a biography of nuclear experimentation as much as the story of David¿s obsession.
sensascriptor525 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Normally I'm basically disinterested in science matters, but after learning what this book was about - the true story of a high school student who built a nuclear reactor in his mother's backyard - I was intrigued. The author first told of this story in an article in Harper's Magazine and for obvious reasons it garnered a lot of interest in David Hahn's homemade experiments. I'll admit that for me, the book dragged when the author painstakingly described the history of atomic energy, the radium craze, and the birth of nuclear power. Exact occurences in laboratories as well as intricities of isotopes, protons, neutrons, and the like can make a reader's eyes glaze over. These were all vital to the story, however, as Silverstein was always sure to remind the reader that the glossy-eyed optimism of scientists in the early developments of radium (along with the supporters of nuclear energy) mirrored those of David's unrelenting optimism. Silverstein does a remarkable job in showcasing David's psychology and analyzes his odd upbringing from his parents and stepparents, and successfully portrays David as both an immensely brilliant scientist and a zealous, isolated young man. A fascinating read.
stephmo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The story of David Hahn should be given as a cautionary tale to any parent that feels the best course of action is to stay largely uninvolved in their child's life since they'll likely have friends, school and even some social clubs where someone else is bound to pick up some of the slack when it comes to raising a young adult. Doubly-so for anyone that thinks that their kid is incredibly smart and somehow immune to actual trouble.Silverstein tells David Hahn's story of an obsession with chemistry that eventually led him to attempt to build his own breeder reactor at 17. Not a model, not a lego simulation, not a cute presentation - an actual breeder reactor replete with radioactive materials (including samples of uranium) that eventually led to his backyard shed being declared a Superfund site. Silverstein does a great job of explaining how Hahn got to that level of obsession, how no one thought to stop his experiments and how a teenager would have access to so many of the materials needed to even begin building a breeder reactor. While the story clearly shows all the things that Hahn did wrong, Silverstein also balances this out a bit by giving glimpse into the home and community life that would allow something like this to take place. While not looking to absolve Hahn, what it does is make your wish that someone along the line would have been able to have mentored him and helped him focus his love of chemistry into something more positive.
Miche11e on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In June 1995, 16-1/2 year-old David Hahn built himself a working breeder reactor in his Mother's back-yard garden shed. His chemical and nuclear education was provided by Robert Brent's "The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments" and the local Scout troop. Parental neglect, money from several jobs and his own car contributed to his success. David would drive around town with the geiger counter that he built himself looking for interesting things in the dump and in antique stores. He was fortunate to find an old vial of radium paint in the back of an old clock for his neutron source. He moderated it with tritium taken from the night scopes of guns which he borrowed from a local store. (He was grounded when the scopes didn't work after he returned them and his Dad had to pay for them.) For fuel, he used thorium which he extracted from hundreds of Coleman gas-lanterns.It took a couple of tries with different material, but he produced a reactor that worked. After several weeks of increasing countrates (yes it was critical) he realized he hadn't built a shut-off mechanism. He tried using cobalt drill bits, but that didn't work. He got scared, and disassembled it, when he started to detect increased radiation levels in the driveway, yards away from the garden shed.The book tells the story of David's family environment, his education, the reactor development process, and its ultimate clean-up. It ends rather sadly. He's currently enlisted in the US navy, but they won't let him near the submarine reactors. What a waste.The book is a tad drawn-out, but I enjoyed it.
jimphelps on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A very entertaining if not somewhat disturbing true story about a boy who builds a breeder reactor in his potting shed. Lost in life, with missing in action parents, the young scout latches onto nuclear science and chemistry and ignores pretty much everything else. A very entertaining read.
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Name: Lea vani Parent: Hades Looks: dirty blonde and blue eyes Age: 12( birth day. Next week) Wears: black groillaz ( the band) shirt black nerd glasses and wonderwoman high tops. Weapons: twin daggers Powers: controling the dead. Personlity: geeky. Jokester. Kinda smart Likes: comic books. Boy converse
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was great to read. I loved the beggining and the beggininmg of the middle. From then on the book was pretty much the same and did not change much. I do enjoy however, that this is based off of a true story. I hope he did not get to hurt in his backyard shed. But the fact that he did manage to get about all the elements on the periodic table was very amazing. Just to find some of them if very hard and costs a lot of money. I really like the books written by Ken Silverstein. He is amazing at finding stuff to write about. A 15 year old chemist. Who could have thought of that?! I dont like that in this book his mom was a heavy drinker and a chain smoker. I did not find that relevant to the story. David seems like a nice person. How could he have no friends outside boy scouts?! I would surely be friends with. My overall opinion of the book was that the book was ok but it definatley could have been much better.
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Reader1793 More than 1 year ago
ive heard about this story on the mews in '07. seems very intriguing...
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Wow... That was my reaction to this book on a couple different levels. I first heard about his story when Mr. Silverstein was featured on NPR after his Harper's article appeared. I found the exploits of David Hahn fascinating and picked up the book when I spotted it. As others have mentioned here, the telling of David's story is very well written. Hahn's 'Mad Scientist' persona and incredible disregard for the personal safety of himself and others around him is alternatively very funny and scary. It's amazing that his family got to the point that they were 'used it' the occasional explosion in the basement. It's also too bad that someone in David's life wasn't able to focus all of that brilliance. However, also very funny (perhaps not in the way that Ken Silverstein intended) is the manner that the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) is portrayed in the book. The things that are said about the BSA are downright laughable. Per Silverstein, the BSA is a 'dogmatic' right-wing political indoctrination machine that demands 'absolute obedience' of its members. Such accusations (with no evidence cited) are heavily sprinkled thought the book. Later on we read about an un-holy conspiracy between the Atomic Energy Commission, the BSA, and Walt Disney (!!!) to peddle nuclear power to the masses. Wow... He's so wrong, and incomplete, on so many levels that I don't know where to begin. I've been involved with the BSA as a youth and an adult for 30 years in numerous places in two different states. The BSA that this book describes is totally unknown to me. I've never met a 'dogmatic' troop leader who attempts to impose mindless group-think or politics on his or her charges. If a reader were to spend some actual time with some troops they would see how they actually operate (the best term I can think of is 'organized chaos'). As for the BSA's 'alliance' with the AEC... that's not the full picture either. The Atomic Energy merit badge was introduced during the halcyon days of 'The Atom' in America. As Ken Silverstein points out, our whole culture was swept up in 'atom fever' then. Whenever the BSA introduces a Merit Badge, it usually partners with an outside authoritative organization to write the requirements and develop any instructional materials. In the case of a 'Medicine' MB, it could be the AMA. For photography, they might call on Kodak for help. And so on. Working with the AEC would have been a logical choice for the BSA. Once created, Merit Badges will only live so long as their popularity allows. Once the number of Scouts earning a Merit Badge drops below levels that can support the cost of printing and stocking their associated materials, they are dropped from the BSA's program (see if you can earn Pigeon Raising MB today!). If kids didn't want it still today, the Atomic Energy MB wouldn't exist today. The BSA's 'agenda' isn't driving things. A quick look at some of the requirements for other MB's also undercuts the book's claims about the BSA right-wing political agenda. I defy anyone to examine the requirements for MB's like Environmental Sciences, Nature, Soil and Water Conservation, or Weather and conclude that the BSA is a tool of the right. They even have a merit badge concerning labor unions! So go ahead and read the book and be amazed by the antics of David Hahn... it's a quick read. Just take the author's personal agenda with a grain of salt the size of a potting shed!