Who was David Hahn and why was he nicknamed the nuclear boy scout?

The story of the boy who became famous for trying to build his own nuclear reactor at home in the 90s.
Maia Mulko
Radiation hazard warning sign depicted on a concrete wall.
Radiation hazard warning sign depicted on a concrete wall.

Nikolay Chekalin/iStock 

  • David Hahn was a science enthusiast who had been conducting experiments since age 10 and reading his father's college chemistry textbooks since age 12.
  • He secretly built a breeder reactor in his mother's potting shed using radioisotopes extracted from old dial clocks, gas lanterns, and smoke detectors.
  • The police discovered the radioactive materials in the trunk of his car and informed the Environmental Protection Agency.

On June 26th, 1995, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made its way onto Patty Hahn’s property with a search warrant.

Just a few months earlier, in August 1994, the police had found a toolbox with radioactive materials in David Hahn’s car. 

David Hahn was Patty Hahn’s 17-year-old son, a science enthusiast who used to fall asleep on top of his chemistry books. A Boy Scout who was working on earning a merit badge in Atomic Energy and achieving the rank of Eagle Scout, he had been collecting thorium, americium-241, radium-226, uranium, and other radioisotopes from different sources with the goal of building a nuclear reactor in his mother’s potting shed.

Who was David Hahn and why was he nicknamed the nuclear boy scout?
Smoke detectors use a little amount of americium-241 to detect smoke.

Hahn had been conducting experiments since age 10, following the instructions he found in The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments, a 1961 children’s chemistry book that had been the subject of some controversy due to safety concerns — a number of the reactions in the book used or generated toxic or corrosive substances.

Neither this book nor other books that David read included a tutorial on how to build a nuclear reactor at home, but still, he managed to create a DIY neutron source in that backyard shed, potentially putting 40,000 people at risk with the radiation levels it emitted. 

This is how he did it. 

Who is David Hahn?

David Hahn’s parents divorced when he was a toddler. Since then, he lived with his father, General Motors’ automotive engineer Kenneth Hahn and his second wife, Kathy, in Clinton Township, Michigan. 

His stepmother’s father gave David The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments as a present. Two years later, when he was 12 years old, David was devouring his father’s college chemistry textbooks. When he spent the weekend at his mother’s house in Golf Manor, he read the Encyclopedia Britannica instead.

Who was David Hahn and why was he nicknamed the nuclear boy scout?
Encyclopedia Britannica

Eventually, he set up his own laboratory in his bedroom. When he almost blew it up, his parents forced him to move his laboratory to the basement.

At age 14, David managed to fabricate nitroglycerin, a powerful explosive made of glycerol, sulfuric acid, and nitric acid. He learned how to make his own fireworks with powdered magnesium, too. 

David worked after school to finance his experiments but was also caught stealing smoke detectors to extract certain radioactive materials from them, such as americium 241, which he knew was held in a gold matrix inside these devices.

Why was David Hahn called the Radioactive Boy Scout?

Americium-241 was, in fact, one of the radioactive materials that the police found in the toolbox in David Hahn’s car’s trunk when he was 17. It was also one of the essential radioisotopes that formed his neutron source. 

Hahn had been attempting to construct a breeder reactor using radioactive material collected in miniscule amounts from low-level isotope sources.

David had also extracted radium-226 from the paint in old dial clocks, thorium-232 from commercial gas lanterns, and uranium-238 and uranium-235 from pitchblende —a mineral that he bought from a foreign company posing as the owner of a nuclear research lab.

Who was David Hahn and why was he nicknamed the nuclear boy scout?
Pitchblende is now called uraninite

The process took a lot of time, and he was never able to achieve nuclear fission, most likely because the materials were low-level and insufficient for that.

In fact, when his homemade setup began emitting measurable levels of radiation, Hahn began dismantling his experiments. A chance encounter with the police led to the discovery of some of his radioactive materials, which triggered an investigation by a Federal Radiological Emergency Response Team, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the FBI.

The property was eventually declared a Superfund cleanup site, and the shed was sent to a site for storing low-level radioactive waste. His neighbors were lucky that no radioactive materials leaked out of the shed. David refused a medical evaluation for radiation exposure.

However, he had likely been exposed to radioactivity in such a way that it may have shortened his lifespan. He never allowed professionals to test his levels of radiation poisoning, though.

After the EPA dismantled his home lab and David Hahn’s story became widely known, he was referred to as the Radioactive Boy Scout in his school and later in the media. 

He was far from enjoying his fame, though. Without his “lab”, he became depressed, a condition which the death of his mother in 1996 likely made worse. He enrolled in a metallurgy course at a local community college, but after failing several classes, he enrolled in the Navy.

David served a four-year tour as a seaman in the nuclear-powered USS Enterprise aircraft carrier. However, for his own safety, due to his earlier exposure to radiation, he was not allowed to work on the ship’s reactors. He later enlisted in the Marine Corps before being honorably discharged on medical grounds — he was eventually diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia — and returning home.

David Hahn's cause of death

 David Hahn died in 2016. However, his death had nothing to do with radiation poisoning, which might have been expected due to the time that he spent in the radioactive shed that he called a lab. 

In 2007, he was charged with larceny for stealing his apartment building’s smoke detectors, and he was investigated under the suspicion that he could be attempting to build another nuclear reactor. Prosecutors recommended that he enter an inpatient treatment facility.

In 2016, at the age of 39, Hahn was found dead. His death was ruled accidental as a result of intoxication from the combined consumption of alcohol, diphenhydramine, and fentanyl.

Who was the youngest to build a nuclear reactor?

Incredibly, David Hahn wasn’t the youngest person to try to build a nuclear reactor. 

Taylor Wilson, a 14-year-old boy from Arkansas, built a nuclear fusion reactor in his parent's garage in 2008. The device, which Wilson named "Fusor," used an electric field to heat and compress a small amount of hydrogen gas, causing the hydrogen atoms to fuse into helium. Although the reactor did not produce much energy, it achieved nuclear fusion, with its plasma core reaching a temperature of 580mC, 40 times hotter than the Sun.

Like Hahn, he was introduced to science at 10 years old. In fact, the idea to build the reactor came from a book on David Hahn that his grandmother bought him for his 10th birthday. But unlike Hahn, he worked within the framework of the law and with the direct guidance of professionals, which made his reactor safer than Hahn’s. 

Who was David Hahn and why was he nicknamed the nuclear boy scout?
Taylor Wilson during a TED talk in 2015

Wilson won several awards at science and engineering fairs, and even federal funding and a Peter Thiel fellowship to work on his projects.

Today, Taylor Wilson is a nuclear scientist who develops nuclear technologies. One of his earliest inventions was a low-cost radiation detector that is being used in ports and containers worldwide. He is also interested in creating technologies for applications in nuclear medicine and nuclear energy.

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