My watch list  

David Hahn

David Hahn

August 2007 arrest photo
Nationality United States
Other namesThe radioactive Boy Scout
Known forAttempted to build nuclear reactor as a teenager
Educationunfinished community college
EmployerUS Navy, USMC

David Hahn (born 1976) is a man known for his attempt to build a fast breeder nuclear reactor in 1994 in his backyard shed in Commerce Township, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, at the age of 17.


Creation of the reactor

Hahn, nicknamed the "Radioactive Boy Scout", is a boy scout who had previously earned a merit badge in Atomic Energy and had spent years tinkering with basement chemistry which sometimes resulted in small explosions and other mishaps. He was inspired in part by reading The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments, and tried to collect samples of every element in the periodic table, including the radioactive ones. Hahn diligently amassed this radioactive material by collecting small amounts from household products, such as americium from smoke detectors, thorium from camping lantern mantles, radium from clocks and tritium (as neutron moderator) from gunsights. His "reactor" was a large, cored-out block of lead, and he used lithium from $1000 worth of batteries to purify the thorium ash using a Bunsen burner.

Hahn posed as an adult scientist or professor to gain the trust of many professionals in letters, despite the presence of misspellings and obvious errors in his letters to them. Hahn ultimately hoped to create a breeder reactor, using low-level isotopes to transform samples of thorium and uranium into fissionable isotopes.

Although his home-made reactor never achieved criticality, it ended up emitting toxic levels of radioactivity, likely well over 1000 times normal background radiation. Alarmed, Hahn began to dismantle his experiments, but a chance encounter with police led to the discovery of his activities, which triggered a Federal Radiological Emergency Response involving the FBI and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The United States Environmental Protection Agency, having designated Hahn's mother's property as a Superfund hazardous materials cleanup site, dismantled the shed and its contents and buried them as low-level radioactive waste in Utah. Hahn refused medical evaluation for radiation exposure.


Hahn suffered local ignominy, but did attain the rank of Eagle Scout. After dropping out of community college, Hahn joined the Navy, assigned to the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise as an ordinary seaman.

Hahn had hoped to pursue a nuclear specialist career, but was not even permitted to tour the reactors[1]. EPA scientists believe that Hahn may have exceeded the lifetime dosage for thorium exposure, but he refused their recommendation that he be examined at Fermilab, a nuclear science facility near Chicago (Silverstein, 1998). Later, Hahn re-enlisted as a Marine.

Media coverage

The incident received scant media attention at the time, but was widely disseminated after writer Ken Silverstein published an article about the incident in Harper's Magazine in 1998[1]. In 2004 he expanded it into a book, The Radioactive Boy Scout.

A television documentary, The Nuclear Boyscout, aired on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom in 2003. In it, Hahn reenacted some of his methods for the camera. Though slated to air on the Discovery Channel, the program has not yet been broadcast in the United States.

The incident was also referenced by the 1999 University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt ("Item 240. A breeder reactor built in a shed, and the boy scout badge to prove credit was given where boy scout credit was due."), in which a breeder reactor was actually successfully (and safely) built by two students.[2]

2007 law trouble

On August 1st, 2007, Hahn was arrested in Clinton Township, Michigan for larceny, in relation to a matter involving several smoke detectors, allegedly removed from the halls of his apartment building. In his mug shot, his face is covered with sores which investigators claim are from exposure to radioactive materials.[3] During a Circuit Court hearing, Hahn pleaded guilty to attempted larceny of a building. The court’s online docket said prosecutors recommended that he be sentenced to time served and enter an inpatient treatment facility. Under terms of the plea, the original charge of larceny of a building would be dismissed at sentencing, scheduled for Oct. 4.[4] He was in fact sentenced to 90 days in jail.[5]


  • Ken Silverstein (2004) The Radioactive Boy Scout: The Frightening True Story of a Whiz Kid and His Homemade Nuclear Reactor. Villard. ISBN 0-8129-6660-0.
  • Ghiorso, Albert. Book review of The Radioactive Boy Scout: The Frightening True Story of a Whiz Kid and His Homemade Nuclear Reactor. August 9, 2004 issue of Chemical and Engineering News (pp. 36-37). An analysis is given of some of Hahn's work by Ghiorso, who has been involved in the discovery of about a dozen transuranium elements.
  1. ^ a b Ken Silverstein, The Radioactive Boy Scout: When a teenager attempts to build a breeder reactor. Harper's Magazine, November 1998
  2. ^ Andrew Bluth (1999-5-19). On Campus; It's that season at Chicago, and Ph.D.'s have taken a back seat to a degree of silliness. The New York Times. Retrieved on 2007-12-13.
  3. ^ "'Radioactive Boy Scout' Charged in Smoke Detector Theft", Fox News, 4 Aug 2007. Retrieved on 2007-11-28. 
  4. ^ Associated Press. "Man dubbed 'Radioactive Boy Scout' pleads guilty", Detroit Free Press, 27 Aug 2007. Retrieved on 2007-08-27. 
  5. ^ "'Radioactive Boy Scout' Sentenced to 90 Days for Stealing Smoke Detectors", Fox News, 4 Oct 2007. Retrieved on 2007-11-28. 
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "David_Hahn". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
Your browser is not current. Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.0 does not support some functions on Chemie.DE