Mini review: The Radioactive Boy Scout

The Radioactive Boy Scout: The Frightening True Story of a Whiz Kid and His Homemade Nuclear Reactor
by Ken Silverstein
In 1997, teenage Boy Scout David Hahn, who had been engaging in home-brewed science experiments for years in his parent’s backyard in Detroit, Michigan, built himself a functioning model nuclear reactor in his mother’s garden shed. He obtained his many of his materials from household sources like smoke detectors and radium-painted clocks from the 1930s. Alarmed at the amount of radiation his reactor was producing, David tore it down, but eventually he had a random encounter with police who realized what he was up to and called in federal authorities: the FBI, Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the EPA, which eventual designated his mother’s home a Superfund hazardous materials site. Silverstein’s engaging tale is an eye-opening, must-read account of both David’s personals science experiment and of the illusive promises and frightening dangers of nuclear power plants.
I can’t help but wonder how different David’s experiments would have been if they have been conducted a mere 7 years later. If he had access to a personal computer and the internet, he might have had better luck with the social engineering he did contacting various labs to obtain materials. On the other hand, he might have had more information about the dangers of what he was doing, which hopefully would have made him more cautious. He also might have had access to other amateur science enthusiasts, who perhaps could have tempered, for better or worse, what he was doing. I think it’s unfortunate that David never found a mentor who could shepherd him into a productive scientific field; he dropped out of community college and spent time in the military, where he seems to be directionless today.

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