Backyard Atomic Science

These are conditions that regulatory agencies never envision. It’s simply presumed that the average person wouldn’t have the technology or materials to experiment in these areas.

State and local governments in the US employ specialists and maintain the equipment to safely handle minor cases of the release of radioactive materials. But sometimes these specialists, such as Dave Minnaar of the Michigan Department of Public Health quoted above, come across something too dangerous to handle. These cases are passed along to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. After all, any polluter that could cause an incident more serious than the Michigan DPH could handle would have to be caused by an NRC license holder. But the 1995 contamination site Minnaar is referring to in the quote was not polluted by a regulated nuclear materials handler. It was the homemade nuclear materials laboratory of David Hahn, Eagle Scout and teenage nuclear physics enthusiast.

Since Boy Scouts attempting to synthesize radioisotopes as they continue the research that earned them atomic energy Merit Badge fall outside the purview of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, David’s lab was turned over to the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA declared the lab a Superfund site and within days had a team show up in a typical suburban backyard. They cut David’s garden shed into pieces and packed it and its contents into sealed barrels which were transported to a radioactive waste depot in Utah.

So how did he do it? Did he somehow get some kind or illegal or fraudulent access to nuclear materials? No, he collected and refined all his materials from commercially available sources. David Hahn may not have built the breeder reactor he dreamed of, but he did build an apparatus that very likely synthesized a tiny amount the plutonium he dreamed of.

To get the full story, read this 1998 Harper’s article, The Radioactive Boy Scout. It was written only three years after the shutdown of David’s lab, so it conveys the best sense of who David was during the time of his experiments.

What I mind most impressive about David’s experiments: 

I admire his single-minded devotion to his research.

His first neutron gun made from Americium collected from over a hundred smoke detectors firing alpha particles to cause a spallation reaction in aluminum foil was quite clever. His method of using wax as a neutron indicator was a perfect way to test his gun.

The second neutron gun was even more impressive, but I worry that he harmed himself extracting Radium for it. The beryllium particle target was a big improvement over the foil he used before. The tritium moderator was a perfect touch.

Refining Thorium to 170 times the purity that would require NRC licensing.

And finally, his last experiment very likely worked

What I find most disturbing about David’s experiments:

His single-minded devotion to his research.

He used a mix of safe and unsafe materials handling procedures

And what were his parents thinking? David’s dad and stepmom didn’t intervene until David had blown up his bedroom and their basement. He then converted his mom’s garden shed into a weekend nuclear laboratory. David often wore a gas mask near the shed and frequently discarded his clothing after leaving the shed.

David Hahn’s Life after the Lab:

David Hahn served a four year tour in the Navy after leaving high school. From the interview in the Harper’s article it seemed the structured military life was doing him some good. At least it kept him away from experimenting with his new scientific obsession, the hormonal and genetic regulation of melanin production. I think he was trying to invent a “natural” artificial tan.

After four years in the Navy, David re-enilsted, switching to the Marine Corps from the Navy for another tour. This second tour was cut short by a medical discharge.

Here’s a short documentary with extensive interviews with David and others involved in the 1995 case. It was aired on BBC4 in 2005. This version has the intro cut off the beginning so the YouTube bots won’t delete it:

Please note the narrator makes some scientific errors in this video. I think she was advised to make these “errors” upon legal advice. When I watched this I was shocked that David still had such a large collection of radioactive materials. But David never faced any legal charges connected to his experiments and the EPA Superfund team focused solely on the garden shed.

The Death of David Hahn: 

Around the time of the 2005 documentary, David began treatment for schizophrenia. In 2007 he was arrested for stealing smoke detectors. When those of us who had been following his case saw his mugshot, we reached some hasty conclusions and predicted he would die very soon.


Most of us though his skin discolorations were the result of ingesting radioactive materials either during his earlier research or from whatever he was doing with the smoke detectors. I think we had romantic notions that David would soon die from the passions of his youth. But he did not die soon.

I suspect the skin lesions in the mugshot are likely dermatillomania or perhaps some form of rosacea from alcohol abuse. Or perhaps David was performing experiments in melanin control and his skin condition was a failed experiment.

David always said that his experiments with radioactive materials had at most taken five years off his life. We’ll never know, because in 2016 David Hahn was found dead of alcohol poisoning with traces of opiates judged a contributing factor.

I am sad that David never found his Rat Park. Maybe schizophrenia means you almost never find your Rat Park.



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