- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 3, 2004

THE RADIOACTIVE BOY SCOUT: THE TRUE STORY OF A BOY AND HIS BACKYARD NUCLEAR REACTOR

By Ken Silverstein

Random House, $22.95, 209 pages

REVIEWED BY CHARLES ROUSSEAUX

It’s rare for boy scouts to be radioactive — their merit badges and many good deeds make the idea of a dangerous scout as silly as Monty Python’s gang of “Hell’s Grannies.”

But sometimes even scouts go astray. In “The Radioactive Boy Scout,” Ken Silverstein tells the astonishing story of one who did, Eagle Scout David Hahn.

With a curious combination of scientific acumen and amorality, the high school student from suburban Detroit eventually managed to assemble a model breeder nuclear reactor in his mother’s backyard. David was caught before anyone was poisoned or burned, although it eventually cost $60,000 in Superfund money to clean up the site.

It was some time before the full story came out, and that it did was thanks to Mr. Silverstein, who provided an exceptional account of the events in a November 1998 article in Harper’s magazine.

This book is billed as basically an expanded version of that story, and in some respects it is. Unfortunately, the book goes almost as badly astray as its protagonist, with its bursts of psychobabble and sermonizing.

Like many boys, David went through a “chemistry phase,” during which he mixed batches of odoriferous ooze, broke beakers and Bunsen burners and scared the dickens out of neighborhood dogs by producing periodic explosions. Thanks to inattentive parents in an already broken home, exceptional determination, and a mania for most things chemical, David went further than anyone could have imagined.

Having seen — and smelled — one too many of his son’s chemical messes, David’s father insisted he join the Boy Scouts. David took to it immediately, partially because the merit badge system gave him license to pursue his interests in science.

En route to completing his requirements to be an Eagle Scout, David elected to pursue the now discontinued merit badge in atomic energy. The insights he gained from earning that badge gave him the idea for his next projects. At first he decided to assemble samples of all of the elements on the periodic table, including the highly radioactive ones, but then subsequently tried to build a model nuclear reactor.

That those radioactive substances were restricted did not concern David — it only made them more difficult to obtain. Once his quest became definite, David slowly built his pile of materials by hook, crook and control rod (only a bit of an exaggeration).

Attempting to pass himself off as a professor (though his letters often contained many spelling and grammatical errors), David sent out information requests to industry and government representatives, trying to gain hints about where radioactive elements might be found. Some responded, and he used that information to obtain trace amounts of radioactive elements in impure forms.

For instance, while on a scouting trip, he stole smoke detectors from several unoccupied cabins in order to secure the tiny amounts of americium-It’s rare for boy scouts to be radioactive — their merit badges and many good deeds make the idea of a dangerous scout as silly as Monty Python’s gang of “Hell’s Grannies.”

But sometimes even scouts go astray. In “The Radioactive Boy Scout,” Ken Silverstein tells the astonishing story of one who did, Eagle Scout David Hahn.

With a curious combination of scientific acumen and amorality, the high school student from suburban Detroit eventually managed to assemble a model breeder nuclear reactor in his mother’s backyard. David was caught before anyone was poisoned or burned, although it eventually cost $60,000 in Superfund money to clean up the site.

It was some time before the full story came out, and that it did was thanks to Mr. Silverstein, who provided an exceptional account of the events in a November 1998 article in Harper’s magazine.

This book is billed as basically an expanded version of that story, and in some respects it is. Unfortunately, the book goes almost as badly astray as its protagonist, with its bursts of psychobabble and sermonizing.

Like many boys, David went through a “chemistry phase,” during which he mixed batches of odoriferous ooze, broke beakers and Bunsen burners and scared the dickens out of neighborhood dogs by producing periodic explosions. Thanks to inattentive parents in an already broken home, exceptional determination, and a mania for most things chemical, David went further than anyone could have imagined.

Having seen and smelled one too many of his son’s chemical messes, David’s father insisted he join the Boy Scouts. David took to it immediately, partially because the merit badge system gave him license to pursue his interests in science.

En route to completing his requirements to be an Eagle Scout, David elected to pursue the now discontinued merit badge in atomic energy. The insights he gained from earning that badge gave him the idea for his next projects. At first he decided to assemble samples of all of the elements on the periodic table, including the highly radioactive ones, but then subsequently tried to build a model nuclear reactor.

That those radioactive substances were restricted did not concern David — it only made them more difficult to obtain. Once his quest became definite, David slowly built his pile of materials by hook, crook and control rod (only a bit of an exaggeration).

Attempting to pass himself off as a professor (though his letters often contained many spelling and grammatical errors), David sent out information requests to industry and government representatives, trying to gain hints about where radioactive elements might be found. Some responded, and he used that information to obtain trace amounts of radioactive elements in impure forms.

For instance, while on a scouting trip, he stole smoke detectors from several unoccupied cabins in order to secure the tiny amounts of americium-241 they contain. Trying to obtain radium, he bought old clocks from garage sales and junkyards.

To procure tritium, he bought batches of night-vision gun sights, scraped out the substance, and then returned them claiming that they were defective. To explain his activities, he usually said he was doing something for the Boy Scouts.

David eventually succeeded in building a model breeder reactor, which while incapable of producing fission, still put out high levels of radiation. Shortly afterwards, he was finally caught.

His working area was discovered to be hot enough to trigger a full federal response. Cleanup crews eventually converged on his mom’s suburban home in full moon suits and sent the materials off to a low-level radioactive dump in Utah.

Most of that tale is told well. Although he sometimes lays down technical details with too thick a brush, Mr. Silverstein uses clean lines to sketch out his characters and set scenes. Unfortunately, those lines are constantly broken by sermons and psychoanalysis.

Mr. Silverstein frequently preaches against nuclear power. He seems appalled by the pro-nuclear, pro-chemistry stance of the textbooks David used. He talks about the atomic bomb at Hiroshima, the accident at Three Mile Island and the billions spent on non-working breeder reactors. He also goes after the scouts, bringing up everyone’s favorite smear: the Nazis.

The psychoanalysis is endless (during which the reader is tempted to reach for his own therapy couch, or at least a rerun of “Frasier”). What really drove David? Why was his father so uncaring? Why didn’t his mother’s boyfriend pay more attention?

Mr. Silverstein suggests that David was brainwashed by the pro-nuclear stance of the pamphlets he read and posits, with plausibility, that David’s dreadful family problems contributed greatly to the situation.

The author’s analysis doesn’t stop there, either. At one point, he suggests that “a sense of collective guilt” lay behind the pro-nuclear power stance of those who had seen the wreck of Hiroshima. At another he dives into the motivations of the founder of the Boy Scouts, Lt. Gen. Robert Baden-Powell.

If the scouts deserve any blame, it is for welcoming David to the Eagle’s Nest after his activities became known. David’s status was challenged by a few scout leaders, but the controversy eventually quieted, and he kept the honor.

He shouldn’t have. Scouts take an oath to, among other things, “Do my duty to God and my country … keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.” They take a similar pledge when they become Eagle Scouts.

For a scout supposedly steeped in the essentials of citizenship — honor, integrity, discipline — David had an astonishing lack of scruple. He set aside caution in his strange pursuit; even worse, he cast away character.

David knew he was putting himself and others at great risk; his crudely written signs around the lab — “CAUSHON” AND “RADIOACTVE” — testified to his conscience if not his spelling technique. He knew that what he was doing was wrong.

David Hahn never apologized for his actions, or at least if he did, Mr. Silverstein does not record it. Indeed, at the end of the book, David, a bit older but neither wiser nor more scrupulous, is again back at the chemical bench.

Regardless of their charge or potency, radioactive atoms are morally neutral. Those who direct them are not. Scientists and scouts are supposed to support the civil society, and most discover ways to do so. When they choose not to, the result is, well, radioactive.

Charles Rousseaux is an editorial writer for The Washington Times.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide