Article — From the November 1998 issue

The Radioactive Boy Scout

When a teenager attempts to build a breeder reactor

There is hardly a boy or a girl alive who is not keenly interested in finding out about things. And that’s exactly what chemistry is: Finding out about things—finding out what things are made of and what changes they undergo. What things? Any thing! Every thing!
—The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments

Golf Manor is the kind of place where nothing unusual is supposed to happen, the kind of place where people live precisely because it is more than 25 miles outside of Detroit and all the complications attendant on that city. The kind of place where money buys a bit more land, perhaps a second bathroom, and so reassures residents that they’re safely in the bosom of the middle class. Every element of Golf Manor invokes one form of security or another, beginning with the name of the subdivision itself—taken from the 18 hole course at its entrance—and the community in which it is nestled, Commerce Township. The houses and trees are both old and varied enough to make Golf Manor feel more like a neighborhood than a subdivision, and the few features that do convey subdivision—a sign at the entrance saying “We have many children but none to spare. Please drive carefully”—have a certain Back to the Future charm. Most Golf Manor residents remain there until they die, and then they are replaced by young couples with kids. In short, it is the kind of place where, on a typical day, the only thing lurking around the corner is a Mister Softee ice-cream truck.

But June 26, 1995, was not a typical day. Ask Dottie Pease. As she turned down Pinto Drive, Pease saw eleven men swarming across her carefully manicured lawn. Their attention seemed to be focused on the back yard of the house next door, specifically on a large wooden potting shed that abutted the chain-link fence dividing her property from her neighbor’s. Three of the men had donned ventilated moon suits and were proceeding to dismantle the potting shed with electric saws, stuffing the pieces of wood into large steel drums emblazoned with radioactive warning signs. Pease had never noticed anything out of the ordinary at the house next door.

A middle-aged couple, Michael Polasek and Patty Hahn, lived there. On some weekends, they were joined by Patty’s teenage son, David. As she huddled with a group of nervous neighbors, though, Pease heard one resident claim to have awoken late one night to see the potting shed emitting an eerie glow. “I was pretty disturbed,” Pease recalls. “I went inside and called my husband. I said, `Da-a-ve, there are men in funny suits walking around out here. You’ve got to do something.'”

What the men in the funny suits found was that the potting shed was dangerously irradiated and that the area’s 40,000 residents could be at risk. Publicly, the men in white promised the residents of Golf Manor that they had nothing to fear, and to this day neither Pease nor any of the dozen or so people I interviewed knows the real reason that the Environmental Protection Agency briefly invaded their neighborhood. When asked, most mumble something about a chemical spill. The truth is far more bizarre: the Golf Manor Superfund cleanup was provoked by the boy next door, David Hahn, who attempted to build a nuclear breeder reactor in his mother’s potting shed as part of a Boy Scout merit-badge project.

It seems remarkable that David’s story hasn’t already wended its way through all forms of journalism and become the stuff of legend, but at the time the EPA refused to give out David’s name, and although a few local reporters learned it, neither he nor any family members agreed to be interviewed. Even the federal and state officials who oversaw the cleanup learned only a small part of what took place in the potting shed at Golf Manor because David, fearing legal repercussions, told them almost nothing about his experiments. Then in 1996, Jay Gourley, a correspondent with the Natural Resources News Service in Washington, D.C., came across a tiny newspaper item about the case and contacted David Hahn. Gourley later passed on his research to me, and I subsequently interviewed the story’s protagonists, including David—now a twenty-two-year-old sailor stationed in Norfolk, Virginia.

I met with David in the hope of making sense not only of his experiments but of him. The archetypal American suburban boy learns how to hit a fadeaway jump shot, change a car’s oil, perform some minor carpentry feats. If he’s a Boy Scout he masters the art of starting a fire by rubbing two sticks together, and if he’s a typical adolescent pyro, he transforms tennis-ball cans into cannons. David Hahn taught himself to build a neutron gun. He figured out a way to dupe officials at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission into providing him with crucial information he needed in his attempt to build a breeder reactor, and then he obtained and purified radioactive elements such as radium and thorium.

I had seen childhood photographs of David in which he looked perfectly normal, even angelic, with blond hair and hazel-green eyes, and, as he grew older, gangly limbs and a peach-fuzz mustache. Still, when I went to meet him in Norfolk, I was anticipating some physical manifestation of brilliance or obsession. An Einstein or a Kaczynski. But all I saw was a beefier version of the clean-cut kid in the pictures. David’s manner was oddly dispassionate, though polite, until we began to discuss his nuclear adventures. Then, for five hours, lighting and grinding out cigarettes for emphasis, David enthused about laboring in his backyard laboratory. He told me how he used coffee filters and pickle jars to handle deadly substances such as radium and nitric acid, and he sheepishly divulged the various cover stories and aliases he employed to obtain the radioactive materials. A shy and withdrawn teenager, David had confided in only a few friends about his project and never allowed anyone to witness his experiments. His breeder-reactor project was a means—albeit an unorthodox one—of escaping the trauma of adolescence. “I was very emotional as a kid,” he told me, “and those experiments gave me a way to get away from that. They gave me some respect.”

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