Growing up in suburban Detroit, David Hahn was fascinated by science. While he was working on his Atomic Energy badge for the Boy Scouts, David’s obsessive attention turned to nuclear energy. Throwing caution to the wind, he plunged into a new project: building a model nuclear reactor in his backyard garden shed.
Posing as a physics professor, David solicited information on reactor design from the U.S. government and from industry experts. Following blueprints he found in an outdated physics textbook, David cobbled together a crude device that threw off toxic levels of radiation. His wholly unsupervised project finally sparked an environmental emergency that put his town’s forty thousand suburbanites at risk. The EPA ended up burying his lab at a radioactive dumpsite in Utah. This offbeat account of ambition and, ultimately, hubris has the narrative energy of a first-rate thriller.
On June 26, 1995 the people of Golf Manor, Michigan returned from work to find a federal EPA crew dismantling a potting shed in Patty Hahn's back yard. In subsequent days, the crew, wearing protective suits, carted away the refuse in sealed barrels emblazoned with radiation symbols. The EPA workers refused to disclose what was happening, only offering vague reassurance that everything was ok. Ken Silverstein shows that things in Golf Manor were not, in fact, ok. David Hahn, a 17-year-old aspiring Eagle Scout, had constructed the rudiments of a nuclear breeder reactor in his backyard and had contaminated himself and the immediate area with potentially deadly radioactive material. In his brief, briskly-paced account of the events, Silverstein weaves together science, history, and testimony from David and his family in a tale both frightening and tragic.
For David to get so far, Silverstein shows, he had to be the victim of carelessness and neglect at all levels of society. David Hahn's parents were divorced, and David used the separate households to conceal the magnitude of his work. His school teachers paid little heed when David, nicknamed Glow Boy by fellow students, suggested he was collecting radioactive substances. Most alarmingly, corporations and government agencies blithely supplied David with the materials and information he needed to expand his work to dangerous levels. Interspersed with his account of David, Silverstein exposes the culture of deceit surrounding the history of nuclear power, a culture that easily seduced an aspiring young scientist. David was left with little in the way of mentorship other than such one-sided testaments to the benefits of science as his trusted Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments.
The book, which grew out of Silverstein's 1998 story in Harper's Magazine reads like a suspense novel blended with breezy accounts of America's history with the atom. It is, in some ways, a coda for the nuclear age. In his final pages, Silverstein shows that power production from nuclear reactors has slowly ebbed over the last decades, breeder reactors world-wide have been shut down, and public apprehension has finally out-stripped naïve scientific exuberance for atomic energy. But is the danger truly receding? Surprisingly, The Radioactive Boy Scout does not address any changes in security that have evolved from David's incident. In fact, Silverstein hints that David himself may still be dabbling with radioactive materials. In the post 9/11 era, the prospect is even more frightening. --Patrick O'Kelley