December 6, 2003

Radioactive Scout

Remember when you were a kid and you dreamed of building a breeder reactor in your back shed? And remember the joy you felt when you built it, and finally achieved some sustained nuclear chain reactions?


You must not be David Hahn, then. The boy who took a Boy Scout merit badge experiment and turned it into a hobby gone awry.

Now seventeen, David hit on the idea of building a model breeder reactor. He knew that without a critical pile of at least thirty pounds of enriched uranium he had no chance of initiating a sustained chain reaction, but he was determined to get as far as he could by trying to get his various radioisotopes to interact with one another. That way, he now says, "no matter what happened there would be something changing into something--some kind of action going on there." His blueprint was a schematic of a checkerboard breeder reactor he'd seen in one of his father's college textbooks. Ignoring any thought of safety, David took the highly radioactive radium and americium out of their respective lead casings and, after another round of filing and pulverizing, mixed those isotopes with beryllium and aluminum shavings, all of which he wrapped in aluminum foil. What were once the neutron sources for his guns became a makeshift "core" for his reactor. He surrounded this radioactive ball with a "blanket" composed of tiny foil-wrapped cubes of thorium ash and uranium powder, which were stacked in an alternating pattern with carbon cubes and tenuously held together with duct tape.
And a short time after that, the authorities stepped in.

This story is a must-read. Why hasn't this been made into a movie yet? As one site notes: "Nobody really needs an unsafe homemade reactor (especially one made of duct tape and foil)" Yeah? Well no one needs a PlayStation 2 either, do they?

(Link to Harper's story, and another Link)

Posted by James at December 6, 2003 2:40 AM
Create Social Bookmark Links

Sounds a little like that teen movie The Manhattan Project. So many dangerous things are possible in life but most rational people simply don't bother. Amazing.

Posted by: Mike at December 6, 2003 9:26 AM

Seems to me like the lad was simply creating an alternative power source in anticipation of the PS2.

Posted by: julie at December 6, 2003 4:26 PM

Amazing story James, thanks!

Posted by: Chuck S. at December 8, 2003 11:25 AM

Copyright © 1999-2007 James P. Burke. All Rights Reserved