Significance Of The Story Of Radioactive Boy Scout

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Abstract

The purpose of this paper is to inform the reader about David Hahn and his experiment into creating a nuclear breeder reactor in his back yard. I will also discuss why this event is significant, what we should learn from it, and how it may have caused changes in society as well as in the field of radiation therapy.

The Radioactive Boy Scout

David Hahn, the radioactive boy scout, was just an average boy with a love for chemistry and experimentation. His life seemed like many other peoples, but he had an insatiable desire to experiment with no care for his own safety. Eventually his thirst for knowledge lead him to researching nuclear power and gave him the idea of building a nuclear breeder reactor in his mothers back yard. To understand what drove him we will want to start by looking at his life up until this point.

The Early Years

On October30, 1967, David Hahn was born to Ken and Patty Hahn in the Detroit area. Growing up he seemed like any other child, though he tended to mix house hold cleaners together just to see what the result of such mixtures would be. These experiments were a result of his parents’ negligence. His father, being too preoccupied by his work, didn’t take notice of David or his experiments; while his mother, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, had her own mental health battles to face. Because of financial and health problems, Ken and Patty eventually divorced, with Ken receiving custody of David. Both of his parents remarried, but even his step parents paid little attention to David and his experiments. (Silverstein, 2004)

David’s love of science and chemistry really took root when his step mother’s father gave him a copy of The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments, written by Robert Brent and published in 1960. This one book encouraged David to preform different experiments ranging from making minor fire crackers to creating deadly chlorine gas. Because of his lack of adult supervision, David preformed many different dangerous experiments without care for the injuries he might receive. Eventually his father, at the insistence of his step mother, stepped in to try to put a stop to David’s experimenting.

Thinking that it was caused by a lack of discipline, he convinced David to join the boy scouts. The boy scouts only helped further spur on David to continue to experiment and look further into The Golden Book to gain his merit badges in the science categories. Besides the experiments listed in the book, it also had sections devoted to the Curies and others that pioneered the field of study in radioactive materials and their uses, like creating power. It was this that started David down the road to creating his nuclear breeder reactor. (Silverstein, 2004)

The Nuclear Breeder Reactor

While David was in the boy scouts, he decided to work toward the rank of eagle scout. One of the badges that David was working toward acquiring to meet this goal was the atomic-energy merit badge. This required him to draw and color the radiation hazard symbol, make models of various atomic elements, calculate his annual radiation dose, build a Geiger counter, and construct a model of a nuclear reactor. (Silverstein, 2004) David wasn’t satisfied with just a model of the nuclear reactor, with knowledge from The Golden Book he set out to create his own nuclear breeder reactor that would produce its own fuel source. At the age of 15, David knew how to ask officials at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for information about isolating radioactive elements, which isotopes were capable of sustaining chain reactions, and where he could find commercial sources of radioactive materials. (Flynn, 1999)

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The NRC told him about thorium dioxide contained in lantern mantels, tritium from bow-and-arrow sights, polonium from electrostatic film brushes, americium from smoke detectors, and radium from both radium dials and vials of radium paint stored in antique clocks. (Flynn, 1999) With his Geiger counter mounted on the dash of his car, he would drive through the norther parts of Michigan looking for pitchblende, which are rocks that contain miniscule amounts of uranium 235. (Flynn, 1999) Because of how little uranium was contained in the rocks, David decided to research where he could get a larger quantity and discovered a firm in Czechoslovakia that sold uranium 235 to collectors, researchers, and educators. David sent two letters to them, one posing as a teacher and the other as a collector with a payment enclosed, asking for the desired material that he wanted for his reactor. (Silverstein, 2004)

Now that he had gathered his radioactive materials, David began work on building his reactor. He first combined beryllium with an alpha emitting particle, like radium and americium, and covered it in a lead shell that had a hole to focus the reaction. This was his neutron gun that he needed to aim at the thorium to transform it into uranium 233, the fuel for his reactor. David finally assembled his supplies, wrapped the material into aluminum cubes, and placed the cubes around the neutron producing core to his reactor. (Silverstein, 2004) After a few days David noticed that his Geiger counter started reacting from four or five houses down from where he had built the reactor. It was after seeing the reaction and level being given off that David decided to take the reactor apart. He gathered the materials and placed them in the trunk of his car for transport.

On August 31, 1994, David was found by the police sitting in his car. The police were responding to a call that someone had been stealing tires in that area, and they found David sitting there and thought he seemed suspicious. After talking to him and asking to search his trunk, they discovered his radioactive materials and thought that it was a bomb. (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2007) After realizing that it wasn’t a bomb, the police contacted the Environmental Protective Agency (EPA) for disposal of the material. Before the EPA could get to his mother’s house, where the reactor was built, she received word about David’s arrest and his nuclear experiment. Patty decided to gather up everything from his experiments, including some leftover radioactive material, and set it out for the trash pickup. (Flynn, 1999)

The EPA started the clean up of the site at his mother’s house in June of 1995. They recorded materials giving off radiation reading up to 500,000 picocuries (pCi). The EPA tore down the potting shed that David used for his experiments, gathered up all the materials that were exposed to and still giving off radiation, then transported it all to Utah for disposal. The total site cleanup and transport cost $60,000. (P. Lall)

The Takeaway

When looking at this radiation accident, we can begin to see why safety precautions are necessary. Though the levels of radiation exposure were small when compared to other accidents, it is still possible that cancers or cataracts formed as a result of the radiation exposure. David Hahn suffered from radiation poisoning and had radiation burns on his body. We should learn that the proper handling and storage of radioactive material is vital to the public’s safety and our own safety.

After this incident, because of David’s lying to government agencies, it is quite possible that the obtaining of radioactive material and information surrounding it has become more regulated. In the field of radiation therapy, we use these materials for brachytherapy. Having these regulations in place could make it so that not just anyone can receive the materials or have access to them because they might not know the proper handling or storage techniques.

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