Remembering the 'Radioactive Boy Scout'

Radioactivity warning symbol

In last week's news briefs we reported the the death of David Hahn, aka 'the radioactive boy scout', aged just 39. In his teenage years Hahn constructed a 'breeder-style nuclear reactor' in the back-shed of his family home after becoming fascinated by the subject through the Boy Scouts and his father's chemistry books. The coroner's results are still pending, so it is still unknown whether Hahn died as a result of his nuclear interest, or by some other cause. (Update: According to his father, David Hahn died from alcohol poisoning.)

I've seen a number of comments around the web and on social media in the days since along the lines of "lol, Darwin Award winner" (referring to a mock award to "recognize individuals who have supposedly contributed to human evolution by selecting themselves out of the gene pool via death"). I've always found the DA rather distasteful, perhaps because they boil down someone's life, and the tragedy of their death to their family, into a one-line, superficial quip (FWIW, I usually enjoy dark humour). So, to help you get to know Hahn a little better, here's an article with a bit more depth, followed by two videos documenting his story in his own words.

Like any teenager, Hahn held after-school jobs at a local fast-food restaurant and a grocery store, but unlike other teenagers, he was using his wages to buy chemistry supplies. For a summer stay at Scout camp, Hahn showed up with powdered magnesium, thinking the other scouts would use it to make fireworks. Instead, they blasted a hole through their tent. Finally, after an explosion in the family basement, David’s parents requested that his experiments be conducted in the shed in their backyard.

Bad idea.

“Sure, they thought it was odd that Hahn often wore a gas mask in the shed and would sometimes discard his clothing after working there until two in the morning, but they chalked it up to their own limited education,” Silverstein wrote.

David’s father laid down the law, insisting that he find some other pastime — specifically, becoming an Eagle Scout. And it turned out that one of the program’s merit badges was in Atomic Energy. Hahn earned his merit badge by building a model of a nuclear reactor using rubber bands and soda straws on a can of juice, adding some coat hangers and kitchen matches...

...His ambition started to grow, and he was determined to produce real radioactive materials. “He remained unfazed by accidents that turned his hair green, burned his skin, or knocked him out cold,” the Christian Science Monitor wrote later. He extracted americium-241 from old smoke detectors, then welded it together with a blowtorch. He extracted thorium from thousands of old lanterns — again using his blowtorch — and successfully purified it “to at least 9,000 times the level found in nature and 170 times the level that requires NRC licensing.” Harpers even reports that “he wrote to a Czechoslovakian firm that sells uranium to commercial and university buyers, whose name was provided, he told me, by the NRC,” then formulated his own nitric acid to try to isolate to the uranium.

(thanks to @Becky_Bongos)


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
earthling's picture
Member since:
22 November 2004
Last activity:
9 hours 30 min

It seems to me that the effort to limit countries' ability to construct nuclear weapons is unrealistic, bordering on the just-plain-silly. This is 1945 technology. Today it is straightforward. North Korea may have some problems with it, but not that much. Other countries could do it if they wanted. Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Spain - give them 3 months, they can do it. The reason they don't is not because the non-proliferation treaty prevents them. The reason is simpler - they don't want to.

We are the cat.