David Hahn was not a gifted student. At the age of 17, he lagged behind his classmates and struggled with his high school courses.
But in his battered garden shed hung with a sign that warned “CAUSHON”, Hahn was a scientific prodigy.
Hahn had long since earned his Atomic Energy merit badge and was working towards his Eagle Scout rank, but mundane science projects were insufficient to satisfy his hunger for scientific adventure. Hahn wanted to secure a place alongside pioneers like Marie Curie. And so, he set out to build a functioning breeder reactor in his backyard.
He gathered americium from smoke detectors, radium from clock dials, tritium from gunsights, thorium from camp lanterns, and lithium from hundreds of dollars worth of batteries. A hollowed-out block of lead served as the reactor. Working from 1960’s science books and information gleaned from poorly-written letters to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Hahn slowly cobbled together the knowledge and equipment to produce fissionable uranium and plutonium.
Hahn’s tiny reactor never achieved critical mass, but as it began to emit radiation at over 1,000 times normal background radiation and registered on Geiger counters three houses away, he grew alarmed. He dismantled the reactor.
That’s when his runaway science project was discovered. When he was pulled over on suspicion of stealing tires, Hahn warned police that the toolbox in his trunk was radioactive. The police report triggered a Federal Radiological Emergency.
Despite the loss of his nuclear reactor, Hahn earned his Eagle Scout rank. His arrest was expunged, and he went on to serve in the Navy aboard the USS Enterprise. However, due to his earlier exposure to radiation, he was deemed to have exceeded the maximum lifetime dosage for thorium exposure and was unable to pursue his desired career in nuclear science.
In 2005, workers in radiation suits converged on Hahn’s backyard as part of a $60,000.00 EPA Superfund cleanup project. The radioactive shed was dismantled and stored in thirty-nine sealed barrels, which were trucked to a landfill in the Great Salt Lake Desert and buried in shallow troughs.
Unknown to Federal regulators, Hahn’s mother had already disposed of much of the radioactive material in the household garbage.