David Hahn life and biography

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David Hahn biography

Date of birth : 1976-11-30
Date of death : -
Birthplace :
Nationality : American
Category : Science and Technology
Last modified : 2011-10-03
Credited as : Atomic Energy, Eagle Scout, Radioactive Boy Scout

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Beginning in 1993, inspired by The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments and science classes, a teenaged Michigan Boy Scout named David Hahn tried to build a breeder reactor in a storage shed outside his home. Needless to say, his mother, scoutmaster, and local authorities were unaware of the details of this project. The boy's knowledge of chemistry and physics was well beyond that of his high school peers, and he posed as "Professor Hahn" in a series of letters to a Nuclear Regulatory Commission official, who cooperatively answered his questions in great detail. He built his own neutron gun, ordered and received small quantities of uranium-235 and uranium-238 from a Czechoslovakian firm, and made his own nitric acid to isolate uranium.

His safety precautions, however, ranged from nonexistent to laughable, and Hahn decided to end his project when his Geiger counter detected radiation from the shed even hundreds of feet away. He left assorted radioactive materials in his mother's house and in the shed, and stacked most of his equipment in the trunk of his Pontiac. Police, later questioning Hahn after reports of a prowler, were astounded when they searched his car and discovered what looked like the makings of a bomb in the trunk, and they were more concerned when Hahn thoughtfully warned them that the material was radioactive. His mother's shed and home required decontamination by an EPA hazardous materials clean-up team.

In his twenties, Hahn served as a US Navy seaman on the USS Enterprise, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, where his duties did not involve contact with the ship's reactors. In 2007, at the age of 31, he pled guilty to stealing smoke detectors, which contain small amounts of radioactive material, and according to an Associated Press report, authorities suspected that Hahn was trying to obtain a radioactive isotope from the material in the smoke detectors. In his 2007 mug shot, Hahn had dozens of radiation burns on his face. His 90-day jail sentence was postponed for six months so that he could undergo treatment for radiation exposure at a Veterans Administration hospital.

Hahn is an Eagle Scout who received a merit badge in Atomic Energy and spent years tinkering with basement chemistry which sometimes resulted in small explosions and other mishaps. He was inspired in part by reading The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments, and tried to collect samples of every element in the periodic table, including the radioactive ones. Hahn diligently amassed this radioactive material by collecting small amounts from household products, such as americium from smoke detectors, thorium from camping lantern mantles, radium from clocks and tritium (as neutron moderator) from gunsights. His "reactor" was a large, bored-out block of lead, and he used lithium from $1,000 worth of purchased batteries to purify the thorium ash using a Bunsen burner.

Hahn posed as an adult scientist or professor to gain the trust of many professionals in letters, despite the presence of misspellings and obvious errors in his letters to them. Hahn ultimately hoped to create a breeder reactor, using low-level isotopes to transform samples of thorium and uranium into fissionable isotopes.

Although his homemade reactor never achieved critical mass, it ended up emitting dangerous levels of radioactivity, likely well over 1,000 times normal background radiation. Alarmed, Hahn began to dismantle his experiments, but a chance encounter with police led to the discovery of his activities, which triggered a Federal Radiological Emergency Response involving the FBI and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. On June 26, 1995 the United States Environmental Protection Agency, having designated Hahn's mother's property as a Superfund hazardous materials cleanup site, dismantled the shed and its contents and buried them as low-level radioactive waste in Utah. Hahn refused medical evaluation for radiation exposure.

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