The boy who risked the lives of 40,000 people by building a homemade nuclear reactor

The American David Hahn, 17 years old, tried to create a nuclear reactor in the backyard of his house, in 1995, in the USA. At the time, he used coffee filters and jars of pickles to handle radioactive products, which put the lives of nearly 40,000 people at risk.

The local authorities of Commerce Township, Michigan, had to intervene in the situation so that the outcome was not tragic. The boy, who became known as the “Radioactive Scout” was fascinated by science since childhood. He began studying chemistry at just 10 years old, and at 14, he even manufactured nitroglycerin, a highly explosive compound.


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The young man’s passion caused him to damage his room with his experiments. As a result, his parents ordered him to move his “laboratory” to the shed in the backyard. It was housed in this space that Hahn began building a homemade nuclear reactor.

For this, three accessible chemical elements were collected to carry out the plan. The young man collected thorium (taken from lanterns); radio (taken from watches); tritium (taken from gun night sights); and lithium (which he got by buying $1,000 worth of batteries). In addition, he had the aid of coffee filters and pickle jars to handle dangerous and potentially deadly chemicals.

Image: Radiation contaminated territory warning sign. Credits: Andreas Wolochow/Shutterstock

With all the elements, Hahn created a rudimentary neutron source, but incapable of producing fissionable fuel at the rate of other reactors. However, what the young man didn’t count on – or maybe he did – was that the device was already spreading detectable radiation in an area that covered several houses in the neighborhood.

Authorities found the boy and the shed

By chance, the police located Hahn’s shed after stopping the teenager’s car and he confessed to having radioactive material in the trunk of his car. The case expanded and federal authorities were called in, which brought the Environmental Protection Agency to the boy’s family’s doorstep.

Fortunately, the material was collected, disposed of, and buried as low-level radioactive waste in Utah. In 2007, David Hahn was again investigated by the FBI on suspicion of trying to build a new reactor. At the time, he was arrested for stealing smoke detectors to acquire americium, a radioactive element. In 2016, Hahn died of an overdose at the age of 39 after suffering from depression and substance abuse.

Via History

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