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David Hahn, The 17-Year-Old Who Built a Backyard Nuclear Reactor

David Hahn

David Hahn, also known as the “Nuclear Boy Scout” or the “Radioactive Boy Scout,” was an American who came to everyone’s notice after building a nuclear reactor in his backyard. In 1994, the 17-year-old irradiated his mother’s house and the neighborhood with his breeder reactor. A chance encounter with the police brought his experiment into the limelight. Soon, FBI, EPA, and various nuclear agencies got involved followed by a Superfund cleanup of the property. Keep reading to learn more about David Hahn, the 17-year-old who built a backyard nuclear reactor.

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David Hahn was a schoolboy from Michigan, USA who had been fascinated by chemistry and chemistry experiments since the age of 10. For his chemistry experiments, he set up a laboratory at first in his father’s and then at his mother’s house. By the age of 15, David aspired to build a nuclear reactor.

David Hahn Boy Scout
Image credit: Eagle & Eagle Production

Born on October 30, 1976, David Hahn was just like other boys of his age. His passion for chemistry began at the age of ten when his grandfather gave him The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments. The book opened new doors for him, and instead of spending hours with his friends, David started conducting amateur chemistry experiments. While reading the chemistry book, he decided to start collecting samples of every element in the periodic table including the radioactive elements.

To conduct experiments, David set up a laboratory in his bedroom in his father’s house. By the age of fourteen, he had fabricated nitroglycerine. Along with the success came failures, and David’s parents were worried by the regular blasts and chemical spills. When some of his experiments destroyed his bedroom, his father banished the experiments to the basement. One night, David caused an explosion in their basement which rendered him unconscious. After that, his father banned all experiments in the house, so he shifted his laboratory to his mother’s house.

During this time, David participated in Eagle Scouts. As an eagle scout, David aimed to earn a merit badge in atomic energy. Around his fifteenth birthday, David was awarded his atomic energy merit badge. Encouraged by this achievement, he decided to create a breeder reactor.

To build the nuclear reactor in his mom’s backyard, David Hahn began gathering the required knowledge. He wrote letters posing as a high school physics teacher, “Professor Hahn,” and tricked various nuclear agency officials to provide him with vital information related to nuclear reactors.

Nuclear fission chain reaction
Image credit: MikeRun/Wikimedia

David Hahn spent weekends and holidays in his mother’s house in Commerce Township, 25 miles outside Detroit. After banishment from experimenting in his father’s house, he began conducting experiments in his mother’s backyard potting shed. When David got the merit badge in atomic energy, he began creating a secret breeder reactor in his mother’s backyard.

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To gain the technical knowledge, David wrote to the DOE, the American Nuclear Society, the Atomic Industrial Forum, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Edison Electric Institute. He wrote letters posing as “Professor Hahn,” a physics instructor at Chippewa Valley High School, and sent them to the officials who replied back providing David with vital information. He even managed to engage in a scientific discussion via mail with Donald Erb, NRC’s agency director of isotope production and distribution.

David’s aim was to create a breeder reactor which can transform thorium and uranium into fissionable isotopes. Using the radioactive materials and the information gathered, he built a neutron gun by boring out a block of lead.

After gathering the technical knowledge, David began searching for radioactive materials. He managed to extract radioactive isotopes from various household items and also obtained black ores from a Czechoslovakian firm. After multiple failures, he managed to extract a good quantity of radium from a vintage clock.

Uraninite
Uraninite, uranium ore. Image credit: Joachimsthal/Wikimedia

To obtain radioisotopes, David wrote to a Czechoslovakian firm that sells uranium to commercial and university buyers. Claiming to be a professor, he obtained a few samples of a black ore but failed to isolate sufficient uranium from the ore. So, he started amassing small amounts of radioactive material from various household items. He gathered americium from smoke detectors, tritium from gunsights, and thorium from camping lantern mantles. To purify thorium ash using lithium, he brought $1,000 worth of batteries.

Finally, David managed to obtain a good quantity of radium from an old table clock with a tinted green dial that he bought from an antique shop. Inside the clock was a vial of radium paint from which he managed to purify and extracted the radium from it. Now his radium gun was ready. Excited, David used his radium gun to bombard the thorium and uranium powders hoping to produce some fissionable atoms.

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Armed with the radioactive material and technical knowledge, David managed to build a tiny reactor. His homemade reactor never reached critical mass, but it began emitting 1,000 times more radiation than normal background radiation. Alarmed at this unprecedented radiation level, he started dismantling his project.

David's backyard
Image credit: Eagle & Eagle Production

After a number of hits and misses, David managed to create a “breeder reactor” in his potting shed laboratory. Within a few weeks, David’s Geiger counter registered quite a high level of radioactivity though it never reached critical mass. When the Geiger counter began detecting radiation through concrete, David realized he could be putting himself and others in danger.

He took advice from a friend and inserted cobalt drill bits to control the nuclear reaction. But the cobalt was not enough, and by now the Geiger counter could register radiation from five doors down from his mom’s house. Finally, David decided to dismantle the reactor. He left the radium and americium in the shed and packed the rest of his equipment into the trunk of his car.

As David was dismantling the reactor and packing it in his car, he had a chance encounter with the police. The discovery of the reactor brought an investigation, dismantling, and cleanup of Hahn’s mother’s property and the neighborhood. Later, Hahn was requested to submit to an evaluation for radiation exposure, but he refused.

David's backyard investigation
Image credit: Eagle & Eagle Production

As David was packing the dismantled reactor in the trunk of his car, police arrived at the site while responding to a complaint call from a neighbor. The officers asked David some questions. Unsatisfied with his answers, they decided to search David’s car. In the trunk of the car, they discovered a padlocked toolbox sealed with duct tape. The trunk also contained acids, assorted chemicals, and various parts of the breeder reactor. The police became alarmed when David warned that the toolbox was radioactive.

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Believing the toolbox to be an atom bomb, the police had the car towed to the police headquarters. There it was discovered that David’s toolbox indeed contained radioactive materials. The Federal Radiological Emergency Response Plan was implemented, and many government agencies sprang into action including the FBI and the NRC. David’s backyard laboratory was sealed and a Superfund cleanup took place. The potting shed was dismantled, and its remains were dumped into a facility in the middle of the Great Salt Lake Desert.

Watching years of hard work being dismantled and dumped sent David into depression. This was followed by a breakup with his girlfriend and his mother’s suicide. After graduating from high school, he joined the Navy and hoped to pursue a nuclear specialist career. But after a few years, he was discharged on medical grounds.

David in teenage
Image credit: Eagle & Eagle Production

The incident sent David into depression. His laboratory was gone and he had no place to conduct any experiments. Other students of his school began calling him “Radioactive Boy.” In 1995, David enrolled in college at his father’s request. But, he skipped many classes and spent his days in bed or driving in circles around the block. Later, due to an ultimatum from his father, David joined the armed forces.

After completing boot camp, David was stationed on the nuclear-powered USS Enterprise aircraft carrier, but he was given the duties of lowly seaman and not allowed to work on the ship’s eight reactors. Then he joined the Marines, and a few years later, he was honorably discharged on medical grounds.

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In 2007, the FBI learned that David was trying to build a nuclear reactor again by collecting americium from stolen smoke detectors. He was charged with larceny and sentenced to 90 days in jail. At the age of 39, Hahn died due to a fatal intoxication.

David Hahn in Macomb County Jail
Image credit: Macomb County Jail via

In April of 2007, the FBI got the information that David was in possession of another breeder reactor kept in his freezer. After a telephone interview with David, the FBI dismissed the matter. Later in August of the same year, David was charged with larceny for stealing numerous smoke detectors from his apartment building. During this time his face was covered with sores. Investigators believed that the sores might be from the exposure to radioactive material.

In court, David pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 90 days in jail. He died on September 27, 201,6 at the age of 39. His death was due to intoxication from the combined effects of alcohol, fentanyl, and diphenhydramine.

Images credit: Eagle & Eagle Production

Also see: 21 Pictures of Fukushima Nuclear Disaster taken Five Years Later

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