Saturday, May 22, 2004

The Radioactive Boy Scout

by Ken Silverstein

Some of us remember a story from late 1994 about a boy who tried to build a reactor in a shed in his backyard. Ken Silverstein tells his story.

David Hahn's father Ken was a mechanical engineer, and David early on learned how to disassemble and reassemble model kits, radios, printers, and other gadgets his father brought home. He dreamed of invention. A pivotal point in his life came with the gift of The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments from 1960, which had lively experiments--making chlorine gas, or chloroform; not like the wimpy Usborne or DK safety-first science books. The Curies became his heroes.

His parents divorced and remarried and he shuttled back and forth between them. His father Ken was extremely inattentive, and his mother Patty mentally unstable and alcoholic. Supervision of David came second, obviously.

Enamored of the things he could do with chemistry (fireworks, tanning solutions, and on and on) David's reach grew; and the "frog in the saucepan" effect meant that his various parents got used to strange gases, explosions, damaged carpet, and the occasional emergency room visit. David had no conception of safety. One day he determined to get a sample of every single element, and over the years he collared quite a few. Some are hard to get: radium, for instance, and plutonium. So, inspired by the notion of transmuting elements, and on fire with the idea of creating a working model of a breeder reactor, he set about finding the peices to make his own nuclear reactions.

Ken had persuaded him to join the Boy Scouts, and try for Eagle--and naturally David went for badges in chemistry and nuclear science. These provided plausible cover for his activities. Since he couldn't find all he needed in the local library he wrote the NRC, DOE, and everybody else he could think of for information, and slowly he pieced together what he would need. Thorium and radium are fairly easily obtainable in tiny quantities: thorium in lantern mantles and radium in antique glowing clock dials. He bought, borrowed, and stole (still unrepentantly!) items he needed. He ashed and purified the thorium, stole some beryllium, and patiently collected and purified radium from old clock dials to make his neutron gun. At school his fellow students thought he was blowing smoke until he showed some of them what the Geiger counter did with his samples.

He put together a table-top model of a reactor, and started it going with the neutron gun--and was gratified to find more radiation coming out than went in. In fact, after a while the background levels were quite high even far away from his shed.

Luckily for the neighborhood's health, the police picked him up for suspicious activity, searched his car, and the authorities soon realized they had a major health issue on their hands. His shed was shipped off to a nuclear waste dump, and he claims that the bulk of his "good stuff" (radium and thorium) wound up in the public dump when his parents panicked and got rid of it.

And what became of him? He became an Eagle Scout, though there was an effort to strip him of his status on the grounds of his being so careless with public safety. He joined the Navy, wound up on a nuclear powered carrier, and was forbidden to ever tour the reactor. He seems to still have the old fascination with nuclear power, and brings his Geiger counter into antique stores still. He will probably die young--he undoubtedly breathed a lot of radioactive dust. He still can't spell, and is no good at academics.

The book is based on an article written in Harper's Magazine. It would have been better to keep it as an article. Silverstein pads the story shamelessly, and ignorantly. You can almost taste the horror he feels at having to write the word "chemical." Silverstein does his best to depict the Boy Scouts as a neo-Nazi group indoctrinating youth into right-wing fealty to big corporations. And of course, nobody could possibly consider nuclear power for any reasonable purpose--Silverstein tries to prove that it is all a naive boondoggle, breeders especially.

Silverstein did quite a bit of research for the book, but evidently didn't understand any of it. Over and over you may find explanations of some bit of chemistry or nuclear physics, but half the time the explanation is irrelevant to the issues at hand. Even some of the simplest stuff is wrong: sodium is not explosive, for example. Dump it in a puddle and you'll get some big bangs and splatters of sodium hydroxide, but to call it explosive is seriously misleading. And, as Silverstein points out in the notes "At times, I found David's tale incredible, and there's no way to be certain of how far he got with his experiments, as he was the only witness to many of the events."

I recommended the book to a few people before I'd read far into it. Now I think I'll recommend the original article instead.

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