When the Boy Scouts of America approved the Atomic Energy Merit Badge in 1963, they probably did not envision the lengths future members would go in furtherance of their knowledge of atomic energy. They certianly did not anticipate David Hahn, who, in 1994, would attempt to earn his merit badge by building a breeder reactor in his mother’s potting shed.
The 17-year-old resident of of Commerce Township, Michigan set to work building his project by collecting radioactive material from ordinary household products, such as americium from smoke detectors, thorium from camping lantern mantles, radium from clocks, and tritium from gunsights. He used a block of lead for his reactor and lithium from $1,000 worth of purchased batteries to purify the thorium ash using a Bunsen burner.
David sought the help of professionals by posing as an adult and corresponding with scientists and teachers. Their assistance was invaluable, and although his project never reached operational stage, he was quite successful in creating something that generated more than 1,000 times normal background radiation.
Only a chance encounter with local law enforcement brought the matter to the attention of the authorities, resulting in the FBI and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission initiating a full-scale Federal Radiological Emergency Response. The Environmental Protection Agency dismantled the site and buried it, along with other radioactive waste, in Utah.
His scientific interests were not limited to atomic studies. Harper’s Magazine reports:
He once appeared at a scout meeting with a bright orange face caused by an overdose of canthaxanthin, which he was taking to test methods of artificial tanning. One summer at scout camp, David’s fellow campers blew a hole in the communal tent when they accidentally ignited the stockpile of powdered magnesium he had brought to make fireworks. Another year, David was expelled from camp when—while most of his friends were sneaking into the nearby Girl Scouts’ camp—he stole a number of smoke detectors to disassemble for parts he required for his experiments. “Our summer vacation was screwed up when we got a call telling us to pick David up early from camp,” his stepmother recalls with a sigh.
Hahn did receive his merit badge, but the rest of his life was downhill from there. Apparently depressed by the outcome of his experiment, he enlisted in the US Navy. Upon discharge he made one poor decision after another. In 2007 he was arrested for attempting to steal a large number of smoke detectors for the purpose of obtaining americium. In his mugshot his face is covered with sores, which investigators suspected were related to his exposure to radiation. Diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic with bipolar condition, Hahn died in 2016 at the age of 40 years.