The Boy Scout Who Built a Nuclear Reactor in His Back Yard

Everybody needs a hobby to stave off boredom, improve mental health, and help with personal development. They key is not to start a hobby that will get you arrested. When 17-year-old David Hahn was a child, he was given The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments, and it didn’t take long for him to develop an interest in science. Where David went wrong was in building a breeder reactor — a type of nuclear reactor that uses a core of plutonium-239 — in his back yard. Hahn was arrested in 1994, when police found what they thought was a “potential improvised explosive device” in the trunk of his car. The Boy Scout quickly discovered he was not only in trouble with the local police, but also with the Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the EPA, and the FBI. An investigation of Hahn’s car by the Michigan State Police Bomb Squad found high enough concentrations of radioactive materials to trigger the Federal Radiological Emergency Response Plan. Upon being interrogated, Hahn explained that he simply wanted to obtain his Eagle Scout badge. His “lab” (his mother’s potting shed) registered a thousand times higher than normal background radiation and presented substantial danger to public health. The shed was dismantled, the materials were loaded into barrels and taken to the middle of Great Salt Lake Desert in Utah, where they were buried beneath the sand. His mother's property was cleaned up by the EPA 10 months later as a Superfund cleanup site. No charges were ever filed against Hahn, and he attained the Eagle Scout rank shortly after his lab was dismantled.