Wild Science Goes Nuclear
When a teen boy scout’s chemistry experiments accidentally caused a scare.
A teen boy scout’s chance encounter with local authorities leads to an alarming discovery that none present at the scene could have anticipated.
Born on October 30, 1976, David Charles Hahn’s fascination with chemistry started around the age of ten, when he received a book, The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments, from his grandfather. From there, Hahn began conducting amateur experiments and later started collecting every element he could get his hands on from the periodic table. At first, the tests took place in his bedroom at his father’s house. However, after his bedroom got destroyed in one of these experiments, he was made to continue them in his father’s basement. When another explosion caused by his trials rendered the teen unconscious, his father banned him from conducting future tests at the house altogether. Now banned from continuing his experiments, Hahn moved his base of operations to his mother’s in Commerce Township, whom he lived with on the weekends. Eventually, his mother made him continue his experiments in a shed in her backyard after causing a fire that almost destroyed the house. During this time, Hahn participated in the Eagle Scouts and sought to earn a merit badge in atomic energy. Around his fifteenth birthday, Hahn got awarded the badge. Following this, the teen decided to try and create a breeder reactor.
To achieve his goal, Hahn collected small amounts of radioactive material from household products. At times, he posed as an adult scientist or high school teacher in letters to professionals — and succeeded several times despite many grammatical and other red flags made in these letters.
A month into his project and Hahn realized it was getting too dangerous to maintain his operation. At one point, his Geiger counter was going off five houses away from the shed, by which point, Hahn panicked and began dismantling his “reactor*.”
*Despite many reports stating otherwise, what Hahn ultimately created was a neutron source. While his device did create new radioactive materials through neutron activation, none of the material was fissile, but I digress.
On August 31, 1994, at 2:40 a.m., Hahn was stopped by Clinton Township police who were responding to a call about a young male stealing tires from a car. When authorities asked what Hahn was doing out, he replied that he was meeting a friend. Left unconvinced by this response, the police decided to search his vehicle. Upon opening the trunk to the teen’s car, they were met with a concerning sight. Inside was a toolbox closed shut with a padlock and sealed with duct tape. The car’s trunk also held foil-wrapped cubes of unknown gray powder, small disks, cylinder-shaped metal objects, and mercury switches. After seeing that the police had noticed the toolbox, Hahn warned them that it was radioactive. Upon hearing that, the police immediately feared they were dealing with an atomic bomb. Hahn’s car was towed to the police station, where a Radiological Emergency Response was triggered. The FBI and Nuclear Regulatory Commission then became involved.
Months later, Hahn’s mother’s property was designated a Superfund hazardous cleanup site. The shed and its contents were dismantled and buried as low-level radioactive waste in Utah. At the time, unbeknownst to officials, Hahn’s mother had collected the majority of the radioactive material and disposed of it through regular trash, before it could be disposed of properly. She did this out of fear that she was going to lose her house if officials learned the true extent of the radiation.
During the process, Hahn had also refused medical evaluation for exposure to radiation. At the time, Hahn’s life expectancy was thought by EPA scientists to have been affected by the time the teen spent handling the radioactive materials in the small shed. The minimal safety precautions used by Hahn also supported their belief.
In the aftermath, Hahn became increasingly depressed following the dismantlement of his experiment. His depression worsened when his girlfriend at the time broke up with him, followed by his mother’s suicide in early 1996. Around this time, although he did graduate high school, Hahn lacked any plans or direction afterward. His father and stepmother encouraged him to attend Macomb Community College, though that ultimately did not pan out. He was then persuaded to join in the military, to which he enlisted in the Navy. While there, he was assigned aboard the USS Enterprise. After a four-year tour, Hahn achieved interior communications specialist with a rank of petty officer, third class. After completing his time on the USS Enterprise, Hahn enlisted in the Marines, in which he was stationed in North Carolina. A few years later, he achieved the rank of Lance Corporal. Hahn was then honorably discharged on medical grounds and returned to Michigan.
It wasn’t until April of 2007 that Hahn came back on authorities’ radar; the FBI received a tip that Hahn was either in possession of or attempting to build another reactor. A telephone interview with him later and officials dismissed the matter.
On May 16, 2007, FBI investigators interviewed Hahn about the flyers he was distributing to promote his book and the film on it that he had coming up. Among the other topics brought up in the interview was the reported theft of tires before his service in the Navy, and a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, to name a few. Another individual interviewed by FBI agents but never publically named stated that Hahn was heavily using cocaine, and not taking his prescription medications. The same person also said that though they believed that Hahn did not pose a threat to anyone, they were concerned for his mental well-being. Hahn was again back on officials’ radar in August of that same year, when he was charged with larceny for the theft of multiple smoke detectors from his apartment building. The police subsequently evacuated the apartment complex, and called in the bomb squad, though no hazardous materials were found.
During this point, and in his resulting mugshot, Hahn’s face notably was covered in sores. Investigators believed that the lesions on his face were a result of recent exposure to radioactive material, but Hahn denied this.
The troubled guy subsequently pleaded guilty in court and was sentenced to 90 days in jail. The court records at the time stated that his sentence would be delayed by six months while he underwent medical treatment in the psychiatric unit of Macomb County jail.
Hahn later died on September 27, 2016, but not from anything related to his past dangerous activities; his death was ultimately due to alcohol poisoning. He was 39.
Unlike other figures from the past who also held a similar fascination for chemistry and experiments, Hahn, while a troubled soul, never once displayed any malicious intent on his part. He may have been irresponsible in his safety measures, but with the right connections, that could have easily been corrected. Still, he was an individual who held great potential and enthusiasm in the subject. Had Hahn found a better way of channeling his curiosities, who knows where his achievements could have taken him.
Despite Hahn’s tragic ending, his experiments did go on to inspire other young chemistry enthusiasts. In particular, Taylor Wilson, who at the time of creating nuclear fusion in 2008, was and still is, to date, the youngest person to do so.