Most kids have some kind of hobby - a sport, collecting stamps or computer games. But David Hahn, who lived in Commerce Township in Michigan, about 40 km out of Detroit, had a scientific hobby - chemistry. And so he tried to build a nuclear reactor.
At the age of ten he was given a book called The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments. Something clicked, and by the age of 12 he had mastered his fatherís University-level chemistry books, and by 14, he had made nitroglycerine. His father thought that David needed a stabilising influence, so he advised him to try for the goal of Eagle Scout - which needs a total of 21 Merit Badges. Some Merit Badges (like citizenship, first aid and personal management) are compulsory, while some (from American Business to Woodchuck) are chosen by the scout. David chose the Merit Badge in Atomic Energy. To get this badge, you have to know about nuclear fission, know who the important people in the history of Atomic Energy were, and make a few models of some atoms, and other stuff. David built a model of a nuclear reactor with some tin cans, drinking straws and rubber bands, and earned his Merit Badge in Atomic Energy on May 10, 1991 (when he was 14 years and 7 months old). Then he decided to aim higher.
Atoms have a core of positively-charged protons, and neutral neutrons. Some of the bigger atoms (like uranium, for example) have unstable cores. If a neutron hits this core, it splits into two smaller atoms and a neutron or two - and also gives off a huge amount of energy.
So David started off by making a neutron gun. He pretended to be a Physics Lecturer, and got lots of professional help from industrial companies, the American Nuclear Society and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He found out that he could get radioactive Americium-241 from household smoke detectors - so he bought 100 broken ones at a dollar each. The friendly customer-services representative told him exactly where the Americium-241 was, and how to remove it from its inert gold matrix. He then put his tiny pile of Americium-241 inside a hollow lead block, and drilled a small hole in it. As Americium decays, it gives off a-particles. When a-particles hit aluminium, the aluminium gives off neutrons. So he put a strip of aluminium in front of the hole in the lead block where the a-particles came out, and bingo - he had a neutron gun.
He had found out that the cloth mantles in gas lanterns are covered with thorium-232 (because thorium is very resistant to high temperatures). He also knew that if you hit thorium-232 with enough neutrons, the thorium-232 would turn into uranium-233. So he bought thousands of gas mantles and turned them into thorium ash with a very hot gas flame. How did he purify the thorium? Simple - he bought a few thousand dollars worth of lithium batteries, cut them open, and did some simple chemistry to concentrate the thorium. But alas, the effort was wasted. His neutron gun didnít have enough grunt to turn thorium-232 into uranium-233.
Time for Plan B. Radium delivers heaps of Š-particles, and he had been told if you blast these Š-particles onto beryllium, you get enormous numbers of neutrons. But how could he get some radium? Well, until the late 1960s, the glow-in-the-dark faces of clocks, and car and airplane dashboard instruments glowed because they were painted with radium. So he started the slow process of haunting junk and antique shops, surreptitiously chipping off the glowing radium. But one day, he got lucky when his Geiger Counter went off its brain. He bought the clock for $20, and inside, found a complete vial of radium paint conveniently left behind.
So he rigged up a more powerful neutron gun with a hollow lead block with a hole, his precious radium inside, and some beryllium to get hit by the a-particles and give off neutrons. What did he use for a target? Some uranium ore he got from a friendly supplier. But failure again. The neutrons were moving too fast (about 27 million kilometres per hour) and just zipped through the uranium. So he slowed them down to about 8,000 km/h by running them through tritium (which he painstakingly scraped off modern glow-in-the-dark gun and bow sights) - and the uranium ore got more radioactive.
By this time, David Hahn was 17, and he decided to stop fooling around. He mixed his radium with his americium and aluminium, wrapped it in aluminium foil, and then wrapped the whole mess in his thorium and uranium - of course, all held together with gaffer tape. Finally he had success - the bizarre ball got more radioactive every day. Perhaps too much success - he could pick up the radioactivity 5 houses away. He panicked, and began to dismantle his creation.
At 2.40 am on the 31st of August, 1994, the local police were called because a young man was doing something suspicious near a car. David told the police to be careful of his toolbox, because it was radioactive. Soon some men in ventilated white moon suits were chopping up his radioactive shed with chainsaws, and stuffing the parts into thirty nine 200-litre sealed drums which they took away to a nuclear waste repository. The clean-up cost about $120,000 - but it did protect the 40,000 nearby inhabitants from harm.
And David? Well, while he was a whiz at science, he never was much good with maths and English. So today, heís a junior sailor/deckhand on the aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise, which has 8 nuclear reactors.
And if George Bush ever needs to call in the Heavy Artillery, maybe he should forget the SEALs and the SAS, and call in the Boy Scouts
The Radioactive Boy Scout !
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