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The Radioactive Boy Scout: The True Story of a Boy and His Backyard Nuclear Reactor by Ken Silverstein


Rating: (Recommended)


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Ken Silverstein’s book, The Radioactive Boy Scout, tells the story of how a young man in Michigan learned enough from many sources to build his own nuclear reactor, and went ahead and did so, without family or neighbors knowing what was happening around them. If your children ever answer your questions about what they did today with the word, “nothing,” read what David Hahn did in his backyard, and shiver a little about what your kids might be doing without your knowledge. Here’s an excerpt from the end of Chapter 5, “Stalking the Periodic Table: Elements, My Dear Watson,” pp. 104-114:


No wonder no one believed David’s wild tales. He was a student who could not spell millions but claimed nonetheless to be conducting advanced research in his backyard. David’s academic mediocrity obscured the extraordinary talent he had in one area, and his seeming ordinariness proved to be an accidental yet effective cover for his research efforts. Doubtless, he preferred it this way. For beneath the blank exterior, his thoughts were bubbling away in ways that would later astonish those who knew him.

For his sixteenth birthday, Ken bought David a used brown Pontiac 6ooo. The car wasn’t much to look at, but David loved it. He took some of his closely guarded savings and bought a car stereo system. He installed it himself and souped it up with an equalizer and reverberator that produced a bass effect that made the car shake. David had picked up a taste for pop music from his mother, and he cruised through the suburbs with Heather, listening to Laura Branigan, Stevie Nicks, and local Detroit heroes Diana Ross and Madonna.

When he wasn’t with Heather, David was stepping up his search for as-yet-unattained elements. His success in obtaining sodium and phosphorus led him to grow more ambitious—and reckless. He was tired of fooling around with the elements at the lower end of the periodic table; he was ready to move on to some of the more exotic substances, especially numbers 84 and up.

Here David faced what at first glance appeared to be an insurmountable obstacle—namely, that the radioactive elements that so intrigued him were all tightly regulated by the federal government. But David had discovered a secret, which had been first revealed to him when he read in his Boy Scout materials about polonium and americium: Many household and consumer items contain radioactive elements. Perhaps they contained only small quantities and certainly not in a pure form, but David figured he could devise means of isolating and gathering radioactive elements from store - bought goods.

David needed expert advice to discover additional natural and commercial sources of radioactive materials. Gherardini and Young were quite knowledgeable about radioactivity, but he feared that his teachers would get suspicious if he asked too many pointed questions. It would be better, he decided, to consult out-of-town experts who didn’t know him and to pretend that all of his questions were purely hypothetical.

And he knew just where to turn for help. The final page of his scout pamphlet contained a list of government agencies and industry groups that scouts could go to for additional information: the Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the American Nuclear Society, and the Edison Electric Institute.

David found a few other nuclear-related organizations on his own and began writing dozens of letters of inquiry, sometimes to multiple sources at the same organization. Initially, he identified himself as a student seeking information for a school project, but it occurred to him that requests from a teacher might be treated with more respect. He came up with the idea of passing himself off as “Professor” David Hahn, an earnest, dedicated physics instructor at Chippewa Valley High School forever seeking ways to enrich his students’ academic lives. Given that Professor Hahn would sometimes send daily requests for information, his contacts must have been greatly impressed, if not fairly irritated, by the enthusiasm he brought to the classroom.

David’s letters didn’t fool everyone, probably because Professor Hahn, even when consulting a dictionary. misspelled so many words and made so many elementary grammatical errors. Some letter recipients might also have found it odd that Chippewa Valley’s star teacher never wrote on letterhead and sometimes requested information in sloppy, handwritten notes.

Still, David was sufficiently steeped in the discourse of nuclear engineering to con some government and industry experts into believing that he was a teacher and professional colleague. He got a reply to about one of every five letters he sent out.

Even then, he could never state his true intentions, so much of the information he received in response was of only marginal value. The American Nuclear Society sent Professor Hahn a teacher’s guide called Goin’Fission, which included games such as a word search where students circle hidden terms like fuel rod, breeder, and control rods.

Yet much of what he received provided useful tips. Dreams and Dragons, another brochure sent by the American Nuclear Society, was no more sophisticated than Coin ‘Fission, but it proffered one amazing piece of information. The mantle used in commercial gas lanterns—the silky bag that looks like a doll’s stocking and conducts the flame—is coated with a compound containing thorium— 232, which makes it glow especially brightly. A silver-white metal discovered in 1828 by Swedish chemist Jons Jakob Berzelius and named after Thor, the Norse god of thunder, thorium is number 90 on the periodic table, two spots below uranium. It is intensely radioactive and has a half-life of fourteen billion years.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, too, proved to be a source of abundant information. The NRC was created in 1975 to succeed the Atomic Energy Commission and was every bit the industry lapdog that its predecessor agency had been. The NRC is a fee-based agency that gets its budget not from taxpayers but from the corporate plant owners, who are required by law to support it. Since the plant operators—among the biggest are Westinghouse Electric, General Electric, and the Southern Company—despise regulation and fees, they are forever lobbying to slash the NRC’s budget. During the 19908, the NRC’s number of safety inspectors was slashed by 20 percent.

The NRC’s most important contribution to David’s nuclear quest was a list of commercial sources for many radioactive materials. This list was part of a large packet of background reading and was meant to show, reassuringly, that many industrial and household products contain small amounts of radioactive material. David, though, viewed it as a shopping list and guide. It wasn’t possible for him to purchase all the items on the list—for example, industrial shipping containers made with trace amounts of uranium—but the list did supply several options that were more pragmatic, at least for someone with David’s talents and perseverance. For example, tritium, a radioactive gas used to boost the power of nuclear weapons, is utilized in the manufacture of glow-in-the-dark gun and bow sights and to light exit signs on highways and in theaters.

He learned that hospitals carry cobalt-6o to treat cancer and that thorium is also found in certain ores. He had already known that uranium was contained in pitchblende and now read that it was once used in a glaze applied to orange-colored Fiesta dishes made in the 193 Os. David also discovered that in the United States alone there are several million radioactive machines and tools in use. These tools contain isotopes, doubly encapsulated in stainless steel, that emit gamma rays or neutrons (cesium- 137, among others, generates the former; a mixture of americium-241 and beryllium produces the latter). Both gamma rays and neutrons have penetrating properties and, acting like X rays, enable technicians to see through asphalt, concrete, steel, and other hard surfaces. Hence, radioactive tools allow engineers to check for cracks in bridges, airlines to inspect baggage, and bottlers to check fill levels.

The Record, a New Jersey newspaper, reports that exposure levels from commercial sources of radiation are generally minimal, but the NRC has recorded hundreds of cases in which Americans received doses higher than deemed safe by the federal government. A New Jersey teenager once dragged an exit sign out of a demolished building, broke open several tubes contained in it, and got hit with a blast of tritium gas. For two weeks, government workers scrubbed down his entire house and destroyed every single item from his room, from clothing to wall posters. In Texas, a cop picked up an odd purple object lying in the grass off the highway. It turned out to be a discarded atomic battery from a well-exploration tool, which gave him a dose fifty times higher than deemed safe by authorities. An NRC employee was strolling down the street in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, when he found a radioactive gauge on the sidewalk.

By now, David had more than enough information to jump-start his research. “I kept getting more and more pumped up,” he later said of these heady days of exploration and discovery. David might have recalled the Curies smashing their tons of Bohemian ore or Fermi with his atomic pile beneath the football stadium at the University of Chicago. He was not a vulnerable, isolated kid but another pioneer of science, searching for the key to new and exciting radioactive discoveries.

David now replaced his first Geiger counter, the one he’d made from a kit for his merit badge, with a more sophisticated model that he purchased from a mail-order house in Scottsdale. Arizona, and mounted it on the dashboard of his Pontiac. He assured his dad that he used the Geiger counter only to test natural sources of radiation, such as ores and rocks he found in the woods. So as not to provoke additional domestic doubts from Ken and Kathy, he began stashing chemicals and equipment for his experiments in the trunk of his car.

To further aid his radioactive scavenger hunt, David distributed a list of desired items to a few friends. Several agreed to help him, though they still didn’t take his activities too seriously. “I thought the most he’d do was ruin any chance he had of having children,” Andy Hungerford said glibly.

Despite the lack of faith displayed by his peers, David slowly yet methodically began to collect the materials on his shopping list. He did take some moderate new precautions before embarking on this phase of his hunt. He bought a charcoal-filter gas mask and “borrowed” an old lead-lined protective suit from a government civil-defense agency in Detroit, professedly for a demonstration he was preparing for his Boy Scout troop. (The agency apparently lost track of the suit and never asked for it back.) He wasn’t always religious about using his protective gear, though, especially on hot days when the suit and gas mask made the stifling potting shed even more unbearable.

David’s first triumph, a modest one, was isolating a sample of polonium, which he got by buying a few electrostatic brushes through the mail for about twenty dollars apiece. The dark brown camel-hair brushes were about three inches long. A stick-on label next to a thin aluminum bar on the plastic handle warned:

“Radioactive: Polonium-210 inside.” David donned a pair of dish-washing gloves and used a wire cutter to bend back the corner of the aluminum strip. With tweezers, he pulled out the tiny silver strip of polonium and dropped it into a vial.

Americium, which was first identified by Seaborg and three other scientists during the Manhattan Project, proved to be just as simple an acquisition. David got his first batch (but by no means his last) during a scouting trip to Lost Lake Summer Camp. While most of the boys were sneaking into the nearby Girl Scouts camp, David executed a blitzkrieg raid on several unoccupied cabins and liberated smoke detectors from the ceilings.

David wasn’t sure where the americium was located, so he wrote to a smoke-detector manufacturer, BRK Brands in Aurora, Illinois, in the pose of a student preparing a research paper. A customer-service representative named Beth Weber wrote back to explain that each smoke detector contains only a tiny amount of americium-241, which is sealed in a gold matrix to make sure that corrosion does not break it down and release it. Thanks to Beth’s tip, David was able to extract the americium components by bending the outer casing of the matrix with a pair of pliers. Out popped a tiny silver disk, about half the size of the end of a thumbtack.

Buoyed by these early and easy coups, David’s ambition soared: He now decided to go after thorium. Thorium was originally used to put the fluorescence in gas street lamps. Because it has a melting point of about 3,3oo degrees centigrade, it is nowadays employed in the manufacture of airplane-engine parts that reach extremely high temperatures. Any individual or company possessing thorium must have a license from the NRC, and the NRC is stingy in doling them out. Beyond a few aerospace manufacturers and university labs, thorium is not generally found in commercial or academic settings.

David knew from Dreams and Dragons that thorium dioxide is found in gas-lantern mantles. Manufacturers say the lanterns emit only a low level of radiation, though they recommend that campers wash their hands after changing the mantle. On the other hand, researchers in Saudi Arabia, where gas lanterns are commonly used to light villages, have found that the mantles emit enough radioactivity to cause long-term biological damage.

David began contacting surplus stores that sold hunting and camping equipment. After a few dead ends, he found and bought a few dozen old lantern mantles from a shop called Ark Surplus, then reduced them to ash with a blowtorch in the potting shed.

For David, handling dangerous items was fascinating and gave him a real sense of power. Soon, he began carrying his radioactive finds to school, to show off. First, he brought his strips of polonium—wrapped in a packet of aluminum foil—and the plastic handle with the stick-on radioactive-warning label. The polonium wasn’t much to look at, though, nor did it impress anyone. One kid he showed the strips to said they were probably all that David had and challenged him to bring in something else—if he really had it. The next day, David came prepared, carrying in his backpack a Geiger counter and a Ziploc bag that was one quarter full of thorium ash. He invited a group of five kids to come with him, and they slipped into an empty chemistry classroom. David placed the Baggie on a lab table and told the kids it was thorium.

“Oh, yeah,” said one of the kids. “That’s nothing but dirt.”

It was exactly what David had expected. With a flourish, he pulled the Geiger counter from his backpack and urged the skeptic to test the Baggie. When the kids in the room heard the Geiger counter begin to click loudly, they no longer doubted David’s claims. In fact, they were so worried about being irradiated that David had to calm them by explaining that thorium emits alpha particles, which don’t pass through plastic. “A lot of the kids had always said I was full of bull, that I couldn’t get stuff like thorium,” he recalled with a sly grin. “You should have seen their faces when they heard the Geiger counter.”

A few Chippewa Valley students became nervous about David’s activities, especially after he displayed a burn on one arm that he said was caused by radiation. Some friends switched desks in classes so as not to sit next to him; others stopped hanging out with him at all. But given the informal yet rigid teen code of silence, which bars collaboration with adults, no one reported concerns about David’s activities to parents, teachers, or any authority figure.

All the while, David was becoming more and more versed in the esoterica of nuclear physics. Based on what he could understand when David began riffing on his acquisitions and discoveries, Ken concluded that his son was exaggerating the scope of his research in order to attract attention. Still, he decided he should look more deeply into his son’s activities. He took David to meet with a chemistry professor he knew at nearby Oakland University. The professor spent one hour with David and afterward told Ken that his son’s theories about nuclear science were founded on a wealth of sophisticated knowledge. Ken was impressed—and also distressed. Up until then, he’d been under the impression that David was just a kid screwing around with things he couldn’t understand. “We may have a problem here,” he told Kathy that night. “David knows enough to be dangerous.”

Other odd occurrences soon heightened his fears. First came the pill vials he found hidden in David’s room, filled with something that looked like paint flakes. Then there were the letters and boxes that came to the house from government agencies and companies scattered across the country. But David convinced his father that all this was part of research he was doing for scouting projects or for school. Ken chose to take him at his word. “He’s a clever kid, and he was always careful to make sure that I never found anything too incriminating,” Ken later said by way of explaining his laissez-faire approach to parenting. “I never saw him turn green or glow in the dark. I was probably too easy on him.”

  Michael and Patty were equally indulgent of David’s experimenting. Naturally, they thought it odd that he had taken to wearing a gas mask in the shed and would sometimes discard his clothing after working there until two in the morning, often by flashlight, but they chalked it up to their own limited educations. “I was suspicious for a while there,” Michael said, “but Patty thought he looked cute.”

Read The Radioactive Boy Scout and lose some sleep about what cute things your kids or your neighbors might be doing in your own backyard.

Steve Hopkins, August 26, 2004


ã 2004 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the September 2004 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Radioactive Boy Scout.htm


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