Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

A Boy and his Atoms

Building a bomb in your own backyard

The teenage boy in your quiet suburban neighbourhood spends hours in the potting shed behind his mother’s house. He’s withdrawn, does poorly in school, has few friends and is regarded by all as “kind of weird.” You can, of course, imagine any number of tragic conclusions to this tale of teenage alienation, but an invasion by moon-suited men from the Environmental Protection Agency—sent to shut down a nascent breeder reactor—probably isn’t one of them. In The Radioactive Boy Scout, journalist Ken Silverstein tells the story of weird boy next door David Hahn, who in a bid for his Atomic Energy Merit Badge attempted to build a nuclear reactor in his backyard in Golf Manor, Michigan. The most interesting (and the most terrifying) part of the story is just how close Hahn came to succeeding. He still needed enormous quantities of uranium and a more sophisticated laboratory, but when the men in white paid him a visit, David’s potting shed was emitting radiation levels a thousand times greater than normal.


HOW TO BUILD A NUCLEAR REACTOR IN EIGHT EASY STEPS

1. Join a Boy Scout troop.

2. Acquire an outmoded chemistry book for kids, preferably The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments, and master its many outrageously dangerous experiments (such as how to make chlorine gas at home). In doing so, form a deep love for the mysteries of science.

3. Pose as a dedicated and curious physics professor looking for ways to spice up classroom education and write to a number of government agencies and industry groups, like the US Department of Energy, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the American Nuclear Society. Ask them pertinent questions, such as, “Does aluminum produce neutrons as well as beryllium with an alpha reaction?”

4. Alienate yourself from family and peers.

5. Acquire radioactive material from everyday household objects. For instance, the mantles of Coleman lanterns contain thorium-232, old smoke detectors (available at your local dump) contain americium-241 and many antique luminous-dial clocks contain radium-226.

6. Fashion a homemade neutron gun out of stolen beryllium, radium and a block of lead and bombard your thorium (from the Coleman lanterns) with neutrons.

7. Th-232 + Am-241 U-233

8. Hope for the best.