The nuclear merit badge

Using common household items, he almost built a breeder reactor

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These days, the phrase "nuclear ambitions" is applied ominously to countries or heads of state. Yet it aptly describes an ordinary teenager in suburban Detroit named David Hahn. His experience is a frightening indication of how easily dangerous materials can be acquired - and hidden.

Despite growing up in an era of no-nukes activism, David wanted nothing more than to join the Curies in the annals of atomic history. That the radium they discovered eventually killed the Curies doesn't seem to have muted his enthusiasm.

David's aptitude for science was phenomenal. From a 1960s-era book of chemistry experiments, he quickly gleaned the principles and skills of manipulating reactions, and expanded his capabilities with long hours of research at the library.

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His safety record was literally stunning. Taking only the barest precautions, he remained unfazed by accidents that turned his hair green, burned his skin, or knocked him out cold. Larger blunders alarmed his father and stepmother, but he learned to cover up his failures.

At school, he was a poor student and terrible speller (the wall of his potting-shed laboratory carried the admonition: "Caushon"). His occasional claims of chemical and, later, nuclear research were dismissed by parents and teachers as attempts to get attention.

And so it was that with ingenuity and supplemental information from letters to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 17-year-old David gathered and refined - mostly from household products - enough radioactive material to make a crude breeder reactor in his backyard.

It was small and would never create an appreciable amount of fissionable fuel, but by the time David disassembled the runaway experiment in 1994, his Geiger counter was detecting radiation from several houses away.

Journalist Ken Silverstein gathered material from extensive interviews with David and his family and from police and EPA reports about this backyard experiment. The story appeared as a Harper's Magazine article in 1998, and now Silverstein has expanded it into some 200 pages.

What emerges in that greater space is that David's pattern of grandiose plans followed by accidents and coverups mirrors the larger history of breeder reactors. In theory, breeders make more fuel than they use. In practice, as Silverstein notes, "the few attempts to build a breeder have resulted in some of the scariest episodes in the nuclear era."

Another problem that's agonizingly apparent is the emotional neglect of David by his family. His father spent time with him only on scouting trips. His adoring mother was too lost in alcohol and mental problems to be supportive. The personal tragedy here sounds as disturbing as the potential public disaster.

Tim Rauschenberger is on the Monitor's Web staff.

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