Nuclear reactors are not pieces of equipment
you come across everyday. They are designed to produce thermal energy
that can be used for its own sake or converted into mechanical energy, and most of the time
into electrical energy. They work by maintaining a chain reaction
producing a steady flow of neutrons, generated by the fission of heavy nuclei, the most common
of which is uranium-235 that produces the thermal heat. There are many different types of nuclear
power reactors, but you certainly can’t shop for one online. However, there was one kid who was determined
to get his hands on a reactor for himself. Welcome to this episode of The Infographics
Show: The Boy Scout Who Tried To Build a Nuclear Reactor. Imagine opening your bedroom curtains one
day and looking out of your window to see a strange green glow resonating from your
neighbor’s shed, and then noticing government trucks being loaded with barrels marked radioactive
by men dressed in hazmat suits outside your home. You might think you had been transported onto
the set of the latest Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster. But in 1995, for the residents of Golf Manor,
Michigan, this was no made for tv drama. A young teenage boy had built a nuclear breeder
reactor in his mother’s potting shed, a crazy idea he thought up while working on his Atomic
Energy merit badge in an attempt to earn Eagle Scout status. The boy’s name was David Charles Hahn who,
not surprisingly, is sometimes called the Radioactive Boy Scout or the Nuclear Boy Scout. So how did teenager David Hahn go from being
an everyday goofy schoolboy to nuclear reactor developer? Ken Silverstein is an American journalist
who used to be the Washington editor and blogger at Harper’s Magazine. He met David in the late 90’s to try and
figure out exactly what happened, by hearing the story from the proverbial horse’s mouth. He described David as oddly dispassionate,
though polite, until they began to discuss his nuclear adventures. Then, for five hours, David became enthused
as he talked about working in his backyard laboratory. He explained to Silverstein that he used coffee
filters and pickle jars to handle deadly substances such as radium and nitric acid whilst working
on developing his reactor. David was a shy teenager, and so had only
confided in a few friends about his crazy and ambitious project, but never allowed anyone
to witness his experiments. He said to Silverstein “I was very emotional
as a kid and those experiments gave me a way to get away from that. They gave me some respect.” As David became more and more preoccupied
with science, he had less and less time for friends, though during his high school years,
he did have a girlfriend, Heather Beaudette. Heather was three years younger than David,
and she says he was sweet and caring, but not always the perfect date. Heather’s mom described David this way:
“He was a nice kid and always presentable, but we had to tell him not to talk to anybody. He could eat and drink but, for God’s sake,
don’t talk to the guests about the food’s chemical composition.” But how did David advance from being this
somewhat geeky experimenting student, to a boy with a reactor? David was a boy scout, and Eagle Scouts must
earn 21 merit badges. 11 are mandatory, such as First Aid and Citizenship
in the Community. The final 10 are optional, and scouts can
choose from dozens of choices ranging from American Business to Woodwork. Of course, David chose to specialize and earn
a merit badge in Atomic Energy. He was awarded his Atomic Energy merit badge
on May 10, 1991, five months shy of his fifteenth birthday. To earn the badge, David visited a hospital
radiology unit to learn about the medical uses of radioisotopes, he made a drawing showing
how nuclear fission occurs, but most importantly, David built a model reactor using simple household
apparati including a juice can, coat hangers, soda straws, matches, and rubber bands. The scouts were impressed, but David had far
greater ambitions. He got to work with writing as many as 20
letters a day, pretending to be a physics instructor at Chippewa Valley High School. This budding young entrepreneur approached
groups listed in his merit-badge pamphlet, such as the DOE, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission
(NRC), the American Nuclear Society, the Edison Electric Institute, and the Atomic Industrial
Forum, the nuclear-power industry’s trade group. He obtained all sorts of information. The NRC was by far the most helpful and David
managed to engage the agency’s director of isotope production and distribution, Donald
Erb. Erb provided tips on isolating certain radioactive
elements. He gave a list of isotopes that can sustain
a chain reaction, and imparted a piece of information that would soon prove to be vital
to David’s plans: “Nothing produces neutrons, as well as beryllium.” The NRC had now given David all the information
he required to build a reactor, and he just needed to source the raw materials. He typed up a shopping list of items that
contained very small amounts of the 14 radioactive isotopes required for the first step. Americium-241, he discovered, could be found
in smoke detectors; radium-226, in antique luminous dial clocks; uranium-238 and minute
quantities of uranium-235, in a black ore called pitchblende; and thorium-232, in Coleman-style
gas lanterns. David created a neutron gun and was ready
to irradiate. He thought that uranium-235, which is used
in atomic weapons, would provide the “biggest reaction.” But getting your hands on uranium is no simple
task. He hunted hundreds of miles of upper Michigan
looking for “hot rocks” with his Geiger counter, but all he could find was a quarter
trunkload of pitchblende, a radioactive, uranium-rich mineral, on the shores of Lake Huron. He also posed as a professor again, buying
materials for a nuclear-research laboratory. He obtained a few samples but not enough. He eventually decided to switch from uranium
and instead hunt down some thorium-232 which, when bombarded with neutrons, produces uranium-233. David knew, from his merit-badge boy scout
pamphlet, that the mantle used in commercial gas lanterns is coated with a compound containing
thorium-232. He bought thousands of lantern mantles from
surplus stores and, using a blowtorch, reduced them into a pile of ash, so he could extract
the thorium-232. Next David needed Radium. He knew Radium was used in the paint on the
faces of clocks, automobiles, and airplane instrument panels until the late 1960’s. So he began visiting junkyards and antique
stores in search of radium-coated dashboard panels or clocks. Once he had enough, David secured a sample
of barium sulfate from the X-ray ward at a local hospital, and used it to concentrate
the radium. Now 17, he’d made significant progress,
and David planned to build a model breeder reactor. But he needed at least 30 pounds of enriched
uranium to sustain a chain reaction. He was determined to get as far as he could
by trying to get his various radioisotopes to interact with one another. David said, “No matter what happened there
would be something changing into something. Some kind of action going on there.” He monitored his mini reactor at the Golf
Manor laboratory with his Geiger counter. “The level of radiation after a few weeks
was far greater than it was at the time of assembly. I know I transformed some radioactive materials. Even though there was no critical pile, I
know that some of the reactions that go on in a breeder reactor went on to a minute extent.” He said. It was 2:40 am on August 31, 1994, when the
Clinton Township police responded to a call concerning a young man who had been spotted
in a residential neighborhood, apparently stealing tires from a car. When they caught up with David, they discovered
over fifty foil-wrapped cubes of mysterious gray powder in the truck of his car, small
disks and cylindrical metal objects, lantern mantles, mercury switches, a clock face, ores,
fireworks, vacuum tubes, and assorted chemicals and acids. The police must have been baffled! They called in the Michigan State Police Bomb
Squad to examine David’s car and the State Department of Public Health or DPH, to supply
radiological assistance. State radiological experts found aluminum
pie pans, jars of acids, Pyrex cups, milk crates, and other materials strewn about in
David’s makeshift shed laboratory, much of it contaminated with excessive levels of
radioactive material, especially americium-241 and thorium-232. How high, you’re wondering? A vegetable can, for example, registered at
50,000 counts per minute, which is about 1,000 times higher than normal levels of background
radiation. After determining that no radioactive materials
had leaked outside the shed, state authorities sealed it and petitioned the federal government
for help. Unfortunately David went into a serious depression
after his laboratory was shut down. Years of painstaking work had been thrown
in the garbage or buried deep underground. Students at Chippewa Valley had taken to calling
him “Radioactive Boy,” and when his girlfriend, Heather, sent David Valentine’s balloons
at his high school, they were seized by the principal, who apparently feared they had
been inflated with chemical gases David needed to continue his experiments. David had hoped to pursue a career as a nuclear
specialist but he ended up enlisting in the Navy. EPA scientists believe his life expectancy
may have been greatly shortened by his exposure to radioactivity, particularly since he spent
large amounts of time in the small, enclosed shed with large amounts of radioactive material. David died on Tuesday, September 27, 2016,
at the age of 39. His father confirmed that the cause of death
was not from radiation exposure, but alcohol poisoning. So, do you know other crazy stories of young
scientists creating their own labs and experiments? Let us know in the comments! Also, be sure to check out our other video
called Atomic Bomb vs Hydrogen Bomb! Thanks for watching, and, as always, don’t
forget to like, share, and subscribe. See you next time!