The radioactive Boy Scout
Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16 16-19
In August 1994, police in Detroit, responding to an unrelated call about the theft of tyres, found teenager David Hahn waiting in a parked car. Suspicious of the boy’s story, the police searched Hahn’s car and found a grey powdered substance inside a locked toolbox in the boot. Hahn told the police that the substance was radioactive and an emergency response team was called. Hahn had developed an interest in radioactivity after getting a chemistry set and, as a Boy Scout, had received a badge for atomic energy. He wrote to the director of the National Regulatory Commission asking about the presence of radioactive elements in everyday objects and the director replied, reporting that the quantities of radioactive materials were too small to pose a significant risk. Hahn set about collecting isotopes from objects he could buy from shops: thorium-232 from gas lanterns, americium-241 from smoke detectors and radium-226 from an old vial of luminous paint. He mixed the isotopes he had collected and wrapped them in aluminium foil as part of his own fission reactor constructed from a block of lead. During the building process, Hahn became concerned when his measurements of radiation levels showed elevated readings five blocks away from his home. He decided to divide up his cache of radioactive isotopes, splitting the material between his home, the boot of his car and a shed. The chance encounter with the police ended his nuclear experimentation and triggered a response from the FBI and a Federal Radiological Emergency Response. Commenting after the event, he said: “I wanted to make a scratch in life… I don’t believe l took more than five years off my life.” It has been reported that Hahn died in 2016 at the age of 39, possibly as a result of radiation exposure.