Article — From the November 1998 issue

The Radioactive Boy Scout

When a teenager attempts to build a breeder reactor

( 5 of 6 )

WASTE DISPOSAL. If you can dump your waste directly into the kitchen drain (NOT into the sink), you are all right. If not, collect it in a plastic pail to be thrown out when you’re finished.
—The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments

At 2:40 A.M. on August 31, 1994, the Clinton Township police responded to a call concerning a young man who had been spotted in a residential neighborhood, apparently stealing tires from a car. When the police arrived, David told them he was waiting to meet a friend. Unconvinced, officers decided to search his car. When they opened the trunk they discovered a toolbox shut with a padlock and sealed with duct tape for good measure. The trunk also contained over fifty foil-wrapped cubes of mysterious gray powder, small disks and cylindrical metal objects, lantern mantles, mercury switches, a clock face, ores, fireworks, vacuum tubes, and assorted chemicals and acids. The police were especially alarmed by the toolbox, which David warned them was radioactive and which they feared was an atomic bomb.

For reasons that are hard to fathom, Sergeant Joseph Mertes, one of the arresting officers, ordered a car containing what he noted in his report was “a potential improvised explosive device” to be towed to police headquarters. “It probably shouldn’t have been done, but we thought that the car had been used in the commission of a crime,” Police Chief Al Ernst now says sheepishly. “When I came in at 6:30 in the morning it was already there.”

The police called in the Michigan State Police Bomb Squad to examine the Pontiac and the State Department of Public Health (DPH) to supply radiological assistance. The good news, the two teams discovered, was that David’s toolbox was not an atomic bomb. The bad news was that David’s trunk did contain radioactive materials, including concentrations of thorium—”not found in nature, at least not in Michigan”—and americium. That discovery automatically triggered the Federal Radiological Emergency Response Plan, and state officials soon were embroiled in tense phone consultations with the DOE, EPA, FBI, and NRC.

With the police, David was largely uncooperative and taciturn. He provided his father’s address but didn’t mention his mother’s house or his potting-shed laboratory. It wasn’t until Thanksgiving Day that Dave Minnaar, a DPH radiological expert, finally interviewed David. David told Minnaar that he had been trying to make thorium in a form he could use to produce energy and that he hoped “his successes would help him earn his Eagle Scout status.” David also finally admitted to having a backyard laboratory.

On November 29, state radiological experts surveyed the potting shed. They found aluminum pie pans, jars of acids, Pyrex cups, milk crates, and other materials strewn about, much of it contaminated with what subsequent official reports would call “excessive levels” of radioactive material, especially americium-241 and thorium-232. How high? A vegetable can, for example, registered at 50,000 counts per minute—about 1,000 times higher than normal levels of background radiation. But although Minnaar’s troops didn’t know it at the time, they conducted their survey long after David’s mother, alerted by Ken and Kathy and petrified that the government would take her home away as a result of her son’s experiments, had ransacked the shed and discarded most of what she found, including his neutron gun, the radium, pellets of thorium that were far more radioactive than what the health officials found, and several quarts of radioactive powder. “The funny thing is,” David now says, “they only got the garbage, and the garbage got all the good stuff.”

After determining that no radioactive materials had leaked outside the shed, state authorities sealed it and petitioned the federal government for help. The NRC licenses nuclear plants and research facilities and deals with any nuclear accidents that take place at those sites. David, of course, was not an NRC-licensed operation, so it was determined that the EPA, which responds to emergencies involving lost or abandoned atomic materials, should be contacted for assistance. In a memo to the EPA’s Emergency Response and Enforcement Branch, the Department of Public Health noted that the materials discovered in David’s lab were regulated under the Federal Atomic Energy Act and that the “extent of the radioactive material contamination within a private citizen’s property beg for a controlled remediation that is beyond our authority or resources to oversee.”

EPA officials arrived in Golf Manor on January 25, 1995—five months after David had been stopped by the police—to conduct their own survey of the shed. Their “action memo” noted that conditions at the site “present an imminent and substantial endangerment to public health or welfare or the environment,” and that there was “actual or potential exposure to nearby human populations, animals, or food chain. . . .” The memo further stated that adverse conditions such as heavy wind, rain, or fire could cause the “contaminants to migrate or be released.”

A Superfund cleanup took place between June 26 and 28 at a cost of about $60,000. After the moon-suited workers dismantled the potting shed with electric saws, they loaded the remains into thirty-nine sealed barrels placed aboard a semitrailer bound for Envirocare, a dump facility located in the middle of the Great Salt Lake Desert. There, the remains of David’s experiments were entombed along with tons of low-level radioactive debris from the government’s atomic-bomb factories, plutonium-production facilities, and contaminated industrial sites. According to the official assessment, there was no noticeable damage to flora or fauna in the back yard in Golf Manor, but 40,000 nearby residents could have been put at risk during David’s years of experimentation due to the dangers posed by the release of radioactive dust and radiation.

Last May, I made the 90-mile drive from Detroit to Lansing, where Dave Minnaar works in a dreary building that houses several state environmental agencies. Because Patty Hahn had cleaned out the shed before Minnaar’s men arrived on the scene, he never knew that David had built neutron guns or that he had obtained radium. Nor did he understand, until I told him, that the cubes of thorium powder found by police at the time of David’s arrest were the building blocks for a model breeder reactor. “These are conditions that regulatory agencies never envision,” says Minnaar. “It’s simply presumed that the average person wouldn’t have the technology or materials required to experiment in these areas.”

More from Ken Silverstein:

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