For American Boy Scouts, attaining the rank of Eagle Scout is the highest achievement one can hope for. But one aspiring Eagle Scout nearly destroyed his neighborhood in his quest to achieve his goal.
David Hahn was an ordinary, but intelligent, young man from Clinton Township, Michigan. For most of his early childhood, he had typical interests: sports and Boy Scouts. But at age 10, his grandfather gave him a book that would change his life. It was entitled The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments.
David became fascinated with chemistry and was soon going through college chemistry textbooks for more ideas. At one point, he produced homemade nitroglycerin in his mother’s basement. This caused a minor explosion that nearly cost him his eyesight. But he was not deterred.
When he decided to try for his Eagle Scout, he decided to build a neutron gun for his final project. He needed advice, so he wrote to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission asking for information. He pretended to be a high school physics teacher to get officials there to correspond with him. Donald Erb, the NRC’s director of isotope production and distribution, told him which elements were radioactive and how to get them.
To collect the necessary materials, David had to assemble a collection of household items that each contained small amounts of radioactive materials. He purchased smoke detectors, mantles for gas lanterns, and scores of lithium batteries, all of which he disassembled to get to his required supplies. To get his last and most important ingredient, radium, he even had to scour antique and junk shops for radium-coated clocks.
When his gun proved successful in irradiating some uranium powder, he decided to go further and build his own nuclear reactor. He found a blueprint for a reactor in a college textbook and went to work.
Unfortunately, he was a little too successful. To measure the radiation he was producing, he had his own Geiger counter. When it began to pick up radioactivity down the street from his house, he began to worry that he was putting his neighbors and family in danger of radiation poisoning.
He decided that he had to get rid of some of his radioactive materials in order to protect the people around him. To do this, he packed most of it into the trunk of his car to dispose of it somewhere else and left his house with it in the middle of the night on August 31, 1994.
Someone saw his parked car and became suspicious, so they called the police. When they arrived, they decided to search David’s car when they didn’t buy his excuse that he was there waiting for a friend. They discovered his toolbox full of radioactive materials and, believing it to be a crudely constructed atomic bomb, arrested him,
When David told his story, a Federal Radiological Emergency Response Plan was triggered. Officials from the EPA and the NRC worked together to decontaminate David’s house. He was released from jail without being charged, since he did not acquire any of his materials illegally.
As an adult, David Hahn continued his radioactive experiments. He was arrested at age 31 for stealing smoke detectors to acquire more materials. At his arrest, he was covered with open sores caused by radiation poisoning and was suffering from a psychiatric condition.
At age 39, David Hahn passed away. Alcohol poisoning, combined with years of exposure to radiation, killed him.