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Sure, Los Angeles Times investigative reporter Ken Silverstein walked ever so slightly on the wild side as a teenager in St. Louis—climbing to the top of a local church dome, setting off the odd bottle rocket. But when the adult Silverstein heard the story of David Hahn, he knew he’d stumbled onto adolescent mischief of a higher order.
Silverstein’s new book, The Radioactive Boy Scout: The True Story of a Boy and His Backyard Nuclear Reactor, traces the way Hahn, now 27, attempted in the mid-’90s to build a functional breeder reactor behind his home in suburban Detroit. Hahn failed, but he did assemble quite a mess of radioactivity: In June 1995, a moon-suited Superfund crew had to remove his potting-shed-cum-laboratory and dispose of it and the surrounding soil in a Utah radioactive-waste dump.
“I could never entirely figure him out, because he had such a weird form of smarts—so narrow,” says Silverstein. “But he certainly seems like a genius in some ways….And what he lacked in inspiration he made up in perspiration.”
As Silverstein explains in Boy Scout, nuclear engineers have failed for decades to build breeder reactors—nuclear generators that produce usable fuel as a byproduct. Working in the pre-Internet era, however, Hahn didn’t know that. Instead, he relentlessly scrounged radioactive materials for his project from camping lanterns, smoke alarms, old radium-painted clocks, and shady East European mail-order outlets.
Hahn’s experiments were also guided by science textbooks from the ’50s and advice from government experts that Hahn gleaned by misrepresenting himself as a professor in correspondence. According to Silverstein, Hahn seemed to almost not comprehend that he was experimenting with highly dangerous substances using a jury-rigged lab that featured few safety precautions. “He certainly didn’t understand the risks,” Silverstein says. “He was a teenager, when the idea of death is beyond you.”
Silverstein, a 45-year-old Mount Pleasant resident who’s also written books on international arms dealers and Washington lobbyists, was surprised that Hahn’s adventures initially didn’t prompt more than passing media mention. And over several years of interviews—first for a 1998 Harper’s magazine article and then for the book—Silverstein found that Hahn isn’t embarrassed by his teenage nuclear shenanigans. Far from it. “For a long time, I think, he saw the book as validation that he had done something pretty impressive,” says Silverstein.
And because state and federal officials hadn’t been forthcoming at the time of the cleanup, Silverstein found Hahn’s former neighbors equally eager to talk—and to listen. “[They] didn’t really know what happened until I interviewed them years later and was able to tell them what I had learned,” he says. Silverstein found that Hahn’s environmental mess proved to be containable, without any measurable health impact for the area’s residents. As for Hahn himself—he’s declined to undergo a full-body scan.
Boy Scout also casts a critical eye toward the nuclear industry for downplaying the dark side of nuclear power in the written materials Hahn relied on for guidance. But Silverstein says he didn’t write the book to impart any big lessons. Instead, he sees Hahn as sui generis—someone whose footsteps are unlikely to be followed by others.
“I don’t think most kids would have the patience to go through what he did,” Silverstein says.
After the cleanup, authorities decided not to file any charges against Hahn, who’s now serving in the military. Silverstein, looking back to the raucous experiences of his own youth, thinks that outcome was probably fair.
“Like a lot of teens, Hahn did things you could classify as dumb,” he says. “But what are you going to do?” —Louis Jacobson