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The Radioactive Boy Scout: The True Story of a Boy and His Backyard Nuclear Reactor Hardcover – March 2, 2004

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Editorial Reviews Review

On June 26, 1995 the people of Golf Manor, Michigan returned from work to find a federal EPA crew dismantling a potting shed in Patty Hahn's back yard. In subsequent days, the crew, wearing protective suits, carted away the refuse in sealed barrels emblazoned with radiation symbols. The EPA workers refused to disclose what was happening, only offering vague reassurance that everything was ok. Ken Silverstein shows that things in Golf Manor were not, in fact, ok. David Hahn, a 17-year-old aspiring Eagle Scout, had constructed the rudiments of a nuclear breeder reactor in his backyard and had contaminated himself and the immediate area with potentially deadly radioactive material. In his brief, briskly-paced account of the events, Silverstein weaves together science, history, and testimony from David and his family in a tale both frightening and tragic.

For David to get so far, Silverstein shows, he had to be the victim of carelessness and neglect at all levels of society. David Hahn's parents were divorced, and David used the separate households to conceal the magnitude of his work. His school teachers paid little heed when David, nicknamed Glow Boy by fellow students, suggested he was collecting radioactive substances. Most alarmingly, corporations and government agencies blithely supplied David with the materials and information he needed to expand his work to dangerous levels. Interspersed with his account of David, Silverstein exposes the culture of deceit surrounding the history of nuclear power, a culture that easily seduced an aspiring young scientist. David was left with little in the way of mentorship other than such one-sided testaments to the benefits of science as his trusted Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments.

The book, which grew out of Silverstein's 1998 story in Harper's Magazine reads like a suspense novel blended with breezy accounts of America's history with the atom. It is, in some ways, a coda for the nuclear age. In his final pages, Silverstein shows that power production from nuclear reactors has slowly ebbed over the last decades, breeder reactors world-wide have been shut down, and public apprehension has finally out-stripped naïve scientific exuberance for atomic energy. But is the danger truly receding? Surprisingly, The Radioactive Boy Scout does not address any changes in security that have evolved from David's incident. In fact, Silverstein hints that David himself may still be dabbling with radioactive materials. In the post 9/11 era, the prospect is even more frightening. --Patrick O'Kelley

From Publishers Weekly

In the summer of 1995, a teenager in a Detroit suburb, a mediocre student with a relentless scientific curiosity, managed to build a rudimentary nuclear breeder reactor in a shed behind his mother's house, using radioactive elements obtained from items as ordinary as smoke detectors. He got so far along in his efforts that when the Feds finally caught up with him, the EPA used Superfund money (usually spent on the worst hazardous waste sites) to clean up the shed. Building on a Harper's article, Silverstein, an investigative reporter for the L.A. Times, 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. His "pathologically oblivious" father comes in for the sharpest criticism, but Silverstein takes note of the teachers who failed to pick up on Hahn's cues (his friends called him "glow boy") and the Department of Energy official who offered crucial tips on creating a neutron gun. Silverstein also examines the pronuclear ideology Hahn picked up in the Boy Scouts (where he had earned an atomic energy merit badge) and dated government publications that touted nuclear power while glossing over setbacks in the troubled breeder reactor program. And though there's little mention of how easily terrorists could duplicate Hahn's feat, perhaps the accomplishment of one obsessed teen is scary enough in its own right.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; First Edition edition (March 2, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 037550351X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375503511
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 0.9 x 7.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (51 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #829,802 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

3.4 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

61 of 68 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on March 15, 2004
Format: Hardcover
This book's title immediately caught my attention. Since I've been working in the nuclear field as a radiation dosimetry specialist for almost 30 years now, I couldn't help but to wonder what this young man could have done to be the subject of a book with such a title. So, I bought the book out of curiosity and read it with intense fascination. It became clear to me that this young man is gifted; and if his efforts could be properly focused, he could do great things. The book is a page turner. It is well written and in an engaging style. The author weaves a truly riveting story - and a true one on top of that. Unfortunately, the book has two shortcomings, i.e., the reasons for four stars instead of five. First of all, there are technical errors; here are only two examples: Roentgen discovered x rays in 1895 and not in 1896 as indicated on page 30; also, and more importantly, the statement on page 159 that beta particles from tritium can penetrate one or two centimeters of human flesh is grossly incorrect. In fact, the most energetic beta particles emitted by the tritium nucleus cannot even penetrate the skin's dead cell layer on the outer surface of the skin - they are simply not fast enough to give a radiation dose even to the skin, let alone deeper human flesh. The second shortcoming is the book's anti-nuke flavor. Tongue-in-cheek statements that tend to put into question the competence of engineers and scientists who are trying to improve the human condition should be replaced by statements that put as much emphasis on the successes and breakthroughs, as on the errors and misjudgments; otherwise a very misleading, erroneous and biased impression may be acquired by those simply wishing to learn the facts. At any rate, it is not my intent to belabor these points. This book presents a truly exciting story and will not disappoint; but by no means should it be used as an accurate historical or technical reference in nuclear science.
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29 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Mr. Scoutmaster on August 3, 2007
Format: Hardcover
I was David's scoutmaster when he was preparing for his Eagle Scout Board of Review. I was to contact five registered adult Scout leaders, who would comprise the Board. One prospective adult told me he could not, because "something happened".

I learned that David and some friends were stopped by the cavaliering Clinton Township (Michigan) Police, who were randomly stopping teens and searching their cars for stolen tires.

David was not allowed to keep his experiments in his stepmother's home, so he kept everything in his car trunk. The cops found no tires, but saw his stuff and overreacted.

Days later, David's father phoned and said that David would no longer pursue the Eagle Scout rank.

A month or so later, a man claiming to be a reporter phoned my home, wanting to do a telephone interview about David. After a few moments, I refused. There was something negative about the line of questioning.

As a Scout, David was always clean-cut, polite, and well-liked by the other boys. My take is that David had the scientific curiosity of a Tesla or Edison; not of an evil prankster.

David's father, like so many divorced and re-married men, walked a tightrope between caring for his son and appeasing a new bride.

For Mr. Silverstein should keep his story factual, and keep his opinions about Scouting to the editorial pages.
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45 of 53 people found the following review helpful By Bryce Wisan on September 14, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Mr. Silverstein has written a fascinating history of a young man's fixation on nuclear energy. The book was engaging, informative, and well-written.

My favorite element of the book was the excellent way in which Mr. Silverstein framed the story by putting it in the context of the history of nuclear science. The history of nuclear science was terrific. Mr. Silverstein clearly deserves praise for his thorough research and superb presentation of this material.

Unfortunately, Mr. Silverstein does not disguise his didain for the Boy Scouts of America and for nuclear energy. His negative opinions--in particular his frequent harping on the Boy Scouts--interrupted the flow of the book, and unnecessarily detracted from the story. Without this wart the book would be phenomenal.
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44 of 52 people found the following review helpful By takingadayoff TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 28, 2004
Format: Hardcover
There's something not quite serious about The Radioactive Boy Scout. The book jacket has a cartoonish design and each page has a little atomic symbol by the page number. It's a small book, almost like a children's reader. It seemed to me as if it would be a quick, fun read.
Well, it was quick, all right. Author Ken Silverstein originally wrote this as an article for Harper's Magazine, according to the blurb. The article has been padded with several chapters on nuclear power, chemistry, and the history of the Boy Scouts. But The Radioactive Boy Scout is hardly a cartoon or a fun little story.
Although this is a story about how one teenager nearly built a nuclear reactor in his back yard, Silverstein wants us to know it is more than that. He emphasizes how David Hahn, the teenager, was neglected by his parents and not taken seriously by his teachers. If only someone had taken the time to take this boy under his wing, perhaps a near-disaster could have been averted. Certainly, the fact that there was no disaster takes the edge off the story, but unfortunately, we already know what can happen when teenagers don't get the attention they need.
I enjoyed the main story as well as the chapters on science and the Boy Scouts. Silverstein describes how radium-based products were sold in the early 20th century as tonics, lotions, and even suppositories, to improve one's health. He recalls filmstrips (remember?) and pamphlets that cheerfully told us to "duck and cover" in the event of a nuclear explosion. He uses a hilarious passage from P.G. Wodehouse to illustrate a common view of the Boy Scouts in their early days.
Although I share most of Silverstein's opinions on federal government, the nuclear power industry, the Boy Scouts, and inattentive parents, I think the story would have been more effective if he had left his editorial comments out. Describing David's father as "pathologically oblivious" is unnecessary. True, but unnecessary.
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