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The Radioactive Boy Scout
Cover of The Radioactive Boy Scout
The Radioactive Boy Scout
The True Story of a Boy and His Backyard Nuclear Reactor
Growing up in suburban Detroit, David Hahn was fascinated by science, and his basement experiments—building homemade fireworks, brewing moonshine, and concocting his own self-tanning lotion—were more ambitious than those of other boys. While 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 nuclear breeder reactor in his backyard garden shed.

In The Radioactive Boy Scout, veteran journalist Ken Silverstein recreates in brilliant detail the months of David’s improbable nuclear quest. Posing as a physics professor, David solicited information on reactor design from the U.S. government and from industry experts. (Ironically, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was his number one source of information.) Scavenging antiques stores and junkyards for old-fashioned smoke detectors and gas lanterns—both of which contain small amounts of radioactive material—and following blueprints he found in an outdated physics textbook, David cobbled together a crude device that threw off toxic levels of radiation. His unsanctioned and wholly unsupervised project finally sparked an environmental catastrophe that put his town’s forty thousand residents at risk and caused the EPA to shut down his lab and bury it at a radioactive dumpsite in Utah.

An outrageous account of ambition and, ultimately, hubris that sits comfortably on the shelf next to such offbeat science books as Driving Mr. Albert and stories of grand capers like Catch Me If You Can, The Radioactive Boy Scout is a real-life adventure with the narrative energy of a first-rate thriller.
Growing up in suburban Detroit, David Hahn was fascinated by science, and his basement experiments—building homemade fireworks, brewing moonshine, and concocting his own self-tanning lotion—were more ambitious than those of other boys. While 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 nuclear breeder reactor in his backyard garden shed.

In The Radioactive Boy Scout, veteran journalist Ken Silverstein recreates in brilliant detail the months of David’s improbable nuclear quest. Posing as a physics professor, David solicited information on reactor design from the U.S. government and from industry experts. (Ironically, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was his number one source of information.) Scavenging antiques stores and junkyards for old-fashioned smoke detectors and gas lanterns—both of which contain small amounts of radioactive material—and following blueprints he found in an outdated physics textbook, David cobbled together a crude device that threw off toxic levels of radiation. His unsanctioned and wholly unsupervised project finally sparked an environmental catastrophe that put his town’s forty thousand residents at risk and caused the EPA to shut down his lab and bury it at a radioactive dumpsite in Utah.

An outrageous account of ambition and, ultimately, hubris that sits comfortably on the shelf next to such offbeat science books as Driving Mr. Albert and stories of grand capers like Catch Me If You Can, The Radioactive Boy Scout is a real-life adventure with the narrative energy of a first-rate thriller.
Available formats-
  • OverDrive Read
Languages:-
Copies-
  • Available:
    0
  • Library copies:
    1
Levels-
  • ATOS:
    10.1
  • Lexile:
    1300
  • Interest Level:
    UG
  • Text Difficulty:
    9 - 12

Recommended for you

 
Awards-
Excerpts-
  • Chapter 1 Chapter 1

    Roots: The Making of a Teenage Scientist


    You—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...

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.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    January 12, 2004
    In the summer of 1995, a teenager in a Detroit suburb, a mediocre student with a relentless scientific curiosity, managed to build a rudimentary nuclear breeder reactor in a shed behind his mother's house, using radioactive elements obtained from items as ordinary as smoke detectors. He got so far along in his efforts that when the Feds finally caught up with him, the EPA used Superfund money (usually spent on the worst hazardous waste sites) to clean up the shed. Building on a Harper's
    article, Silverstein, an investigative reporter for the L.A. Times
    , fleshes out David Hahn's atomic escapades, and though it takes a while for the story to kick into gear, readers will be sucked in not just by how Hahn did it but how he was able to get away with it. His "pathologically oblivious" father comes in for the sharpest criticism, but Silverstein takes note of the teachers who failed to pick up on Hahn's cues (his friends called him "glow boy") and the Department of Energy official who offered crucial tips on creating a neutron gun. Silverstein also examines the pronuclear ideology Hahn picked up in the Boy Scouts (where he had earned an atomic energy merit badge) and dated government publications that touted nuclear power while glossing over setbacks in the troubled breeder reactor program. And though there's little mention of how easily terrorists could duplicate Hahn's feat, perhaps the accomplishment of one obsessed teen is scary enough in its own right. Agent, Melanie Jackson.

  • Library Journal

    February 1, 2004
    Judging from this book, Los Angeles Times investigative reporter Silverstein is good at his job. Unfortunately, the kind of well-researched human-interest story that makes for good reading in a newspaper article is less than gripping in a 200-page book. His detached third-person reporting gets the story across but never draws the reader into the life of David Hahn-the troubled youth who tried to build a breeder nuclear reactor in a garden shed-or any other party involved. Rather, it merely engenders horror at the utter disregard that David had for himself and everyone around him and dismay at the complete lack of guidance or supervision from adults in his life. There are minor inaccuracies scattered throughout-Silverstein defines half-life as the amount of time required for the intensity of radiation to decay by half rather than as the time for half of the radioactive particles to have decayed-so it should not necessarily be classified as a science book. However, it is an important story that many patrons in public libraries will find interesting, if disturbing.-Marcia R. Franklin, Academy Coll. Lib., Bloomington, MN

    Copyright 2004 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • School Library Journal

    October 1, 2004
    Adult/High School -After his grandfather gave him a used copy of The Golden Book of Chemistry, David Hahn became obsessed with science and conducting his own experiments. As an Eagle Scout, he began work on the Atomic Energy badge by making a model of a nuclear reactor. Not satisfied with that, he set out to build a real one. He read voraciously and scavenged for materials, finding some of the items he needed in gas-lantern mantels and smoke detectors. By posing as a professor, he used the Nuclear Regulatory Agency to get much of the information that he needed. And in the summer after his junior year in high school, he nearly succeeded in building a reactor in the potting shed behind his house. He created a site so hazardous that it became an EPA's Superfund site. Silverstein writes in a light, easy-to-read style even as he explains the atomic theory behind Hahn's experiments. He sees the young man's dysfunctional family and his teachers' lack of time or interest in finding out more about "Glow Boy's" pursuits as the framework for Hahn's misguided conduct. Readers will have plenty to think about and discuss after reading this amazing tale of an adolescent loner's single-minded pursuit of a dangerous goal.-Jane S. Drabkin, Chinn Park Regional Library, Woodbridge, VA

    Copyright 2004 School Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Booklist

    December 1, 2003
    Lighting fireworks, participating in scouting, hanging with a girlfriend: these normal boyhood activities belied the strangeness of Detroit-area teenager David Hahn. Silverstein recounts how Hahn, while a high-school student in the early 1990s, tried to assemble a breeder nuclear reactor in a garden shed. Seeking the origins of such audacity, the author extensively interviewed Hahn and worked backward from the day in 1995 when EPA personnel clad in ventilated moon suits took away Hahn's radioactive material. To Silverstein, Hahn was two things at once: a kid out of time who imbibed 1960-style nuclear optimism from a chemistry book published that year and a kid of the times, the product of divorce. Neither parents nor stepparents, consumed by work and personal problems, supervised young David, who, utterly heedless of danger, re-created the experiments of Marie and Pierre Curie with a monomania that fed his fantasy of going nuclear. Aghast at Hahn's recklessness but amazed by his mad-scientist resourcefulness, Silverstein regales readers with an irresistible tale.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2003, American Library Association.)

  • David Kushner, author of Masters of Doom "Anyone who has ever wondered what the neighborhood geek might be brewing up in his backyard should read The Radioactive Boy Scout. This is a riveting and disturbing story about the power of the teenage mind--and the sparks that fly when a nuclear family melts down."
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