Synopses & Reviews
Growing up in suburban Detroit, David Hahn was fascinated by science, and his basement experiments—building homemade fireworks, brewing moonshine, and concocting his own self-tanning lotion—were more ambitious than those of other boys. While working on his Atomic Energy badge for the Boy Scouts, David’s obsessive attention turned to nuclear energy. Throwing caution to the wind, he plunged into a new project: building a nuclear breeder reactor in his backyard garden shed.
In The Radioactive Boy Scout, veteran journalist Ken Silverstein recreates in brilliant detail the months of David’s improbable nuclear quest. Posing as a physics professor, David solicited information on reactor design from the U.S. government and from industry experts. (Ironically, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was his number one source of information.) Scavenging antiques stores and junkyards for old-fashioned smoke detectors and gas lanterns—both of which contain small amounts of radioactive material—and following blueprints he found in an outdated physics textbook, David cobbled together a crude device that threw off toxic levels of radiation. His unsanctioned and wholly unsupervised project finally sparked an environmental catastrophe that put his town’s forty thousand residents at risk and caused the EPA to shut down his lab and bury it at a radioactive dumpsite in Utah.
An outrageous account of ambition and, ultimately, hubris that sits comfortably on the shelf next to such offbeat science books as Driving Mr. Albert and stories of grand capers like Catch Me If You Can, The Radioactive Boy Scout is a real-life adventure with the narrative energy of a first-rate thriller.
"Aghast at Hahn's recklessness but amazed by his mad-scientist resourcefulness, Silverstein regales readers with an irresistible tale." Booklist
"Anyone who has ever wondered what the neighborhood geek might be brewing up in his backyard should read The Radioactive Boy Scout. This is a riveting and disturbing story about the power of the teenage mind and the sparks that fly when a nuclear family melts down." David Kushner, author of Masters of Doom
"Silverstein...fleshes out David Hahn's atomic escapades, and though it takes a while for the story to kick into gear, readers will be sucked in not just by how Hahn did it but how he was able to get away with it." Publishers Weekly
"A preposterous story kept in check by a restrained (if incredulous) voice and by situating it within the folderol of the Cold War nuclear fraternity." Kirkus Reviews
"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....The personal tragedy here sounds as disturbing as the potential public disaster." Tim Rauschenberger, The Christian Science Monitor
(read the entire Christian Science Monitor review
In this page-turning biography, Silverstein explores one Boy Scout's out-of-control love affair with science and his astonishing attempt to build a nuclear reactor in his backyard.
About the Author
Ken Silverstein is an investigative reporter for the Washington, D.C., bureau of the Los Angeles Times. A former contributing editor to Harper's magazine, in which a portion of this story first appeared, he has written for Mother Jones, The Nation, and The American Prospect, among others. He lives in Washington, D.C.