Growing up in the suburbs outside of Detroit, David Hahn seemed like an average teenage boy with a strong interest in chemistry.
When David became a Boy Scout, he wanted to achieve one of the most challenging of all merit badges: Atomic Energy. "One of the requirements is to build a Geiger counter," says Joe Auito, David's Boy Scout leader.
Once he had his homemade Geiger counter, David went in search of some ordinary household products - radioactive household products.
As David explains it, "I had a Geiger counter on the dashboard of my car. And I would drive by, looking for nuclear material. I noticed the Geiger counter went crazy. I pulled over; it was an antique shop. I eventually found a radium clock. I broke it open later on, and found out that a radium dial was inside the clock."
Gloria Genette, who sold the clock to David for $10 because it had been sitting there for so long, says that he came back later that day and left a note saying that if any more clocks like that one came in, he would definitely pay any price.
David's parents were divorced. Having two homes provided him with twice as much laboratory space. According to David's stepfather, Michael Polansek, David "used to say things like 'I'm gonna go out in the shed and do some work' or something. I said, 'Okay, David. You be careful.' And he'd be out there for hours."
What David was doing out there in the shed wasn't quite the kind of mischief you would expect from a boy his age. He had begun to process and refine radioactive materials from household products he had collected, the first step toward building a device that actually creates nuclear fuel.
He was building his very own backyard breeder reactor.
"I was trying to set up a model of a reactor with the real materials, with the real elements that were in the real reactor," David explains.
Soon, David was using the money he earned flipping burgers after school to buy household products for his experiments. He spent thousands of dollars to get the elements he needed.
"I found lantern mantels, which contain thorium dioxide. They sold those at Kmarts, orÂ…any regular storeÂ…. Tritium from bow and arrow sights, polonium from electrostatic film brushes, americium from smoke detectors, radium from, of course, radium dials."
And where did he get the shopping list? "I did get little bits and pieces from NRC," he says.
In fact, David had an ongoing correspondence with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He told them he was a professor at a nearby community ollege. Whenever "Professor" Davie Hahn had questions, the NRC provided the answers.
The NRC even sent a list of consumer products that contained the radioactive elements David needed. Packages soon began to arrive from as far away as Czechoslovakia.
David father, Ken Hahn, recalls, "He sent away to First Alert and Captain Kelly and a few other companies asking for discarded smoke alarms. He would get literally hundreds of these smoke detectors delivered daily."
That finally set off some bells. "I asked him what he was doing, and he said, 'well, I'm just collecting the batteries in the smoke alarms.' I thought he was after the batteries."
Then there was an explosion that nearly cost David his eyesight. David explains: "Not knowing how red phosphorous reacts to crushing it with, say, the ends of hammers and what have you, or just trying to pulverize it into a powder, it exploded."
That stopped the experiments for a while, his stepmother says. "He was quiet for a good three weeks, four weeks. And then I noticed that things started, you know, little stuff, bottles coming back into the house, the beakers again."
Finally, David's family had had enough. No more experiments. They shut down his laboratories at both homes. So, David simply moved his lab to the trunk of his car. That lasted only until the police stopped him for a minor traffic violation.
Ken Hahn well remembers his talk with a police officer. "I talked to a lieutenant and he said, 'we believe your son's been making a bomb.'"
David reassured his father that he wasn't building a bomb. He was building a nuclear reactor. "And I was thinking, 'Geez, wow, I hope he's just kidding me.' That's what I hoped."
What parent would believe their child was building a nuclear reactor? It wasn't until investigators from the federal Environmental Protection Agency came knocking on the door that David's parents began to think maybe David really was building a reactor.
"We didn't know what he was doing back there and we were both scared and didn't know what was going to happen," his stepfather recalls. "And then they came and took everything. Loaded them in 55-gallon drums and hauled them away."
Eventually, the shed at David's mother's house was given the dubious distinction of being declared a federal Superfund site, meaning it was so toxic the government would have to clean it up. Every board and nail was shipped off to a low-level radiation storage site in Utah. The EPA had never seen a hoard of radioactive materials quite like it. The thorium was purified to 100 times the licensable level.
Says Jim Mitchell, of the EPA, "It was some of the highest concentrated materials that we encountered. And that's one of the main reasons we had to spend the money we did in order to clean up the site."
The cost of the cleanup was more than $60,000, but the government never sent a bill. Even today, David still doesn' understand what all the fuss was about. "It got me excited. It was a hobby," he says.
David's mischievous teenage years are behind him. He's now following orders as a seaman third class in the United States Navy.
He's stationed aboard the nuclear-powered USS Enterprise.
The only concern about him now is over the possible long-term health effects to David from his exposure to so much radiation.
By Roberta Baskin
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