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The Radioactive Boy Scout: The Frightening True Story of a Whiz Kid and His Homemade Nuclear Reactor Paperback – January 11, 2005

51 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“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

Amazing . . . unsettling . . . should come with a warning: Don’t buy [this book] for any obsessive kids in the family. It might give them ideas.”
Rocky Mountain News

“An astounding story . . . [Silverstein] has a novelist’s eye for meaningful detail and a historian’s touch for context.”
–The San Diego Union-Tribune

“Alarming . . . The story fascinates from start to finish.”

“Enthralling . . . [It] has the quirky pleasures of a Don DeLillo novel or an Errol Morris documentary. . . . An engaging portrait of a person whose life on America’s fringe also says something about mainstream America.”
–Minneapolis Star Tribune

“[Silverstein] does a fabulous job of letting David [Hahn’s] surrealistic story tell itself. . . . But what’s truly amazing is how far Hahn actually got in the construction of his crude nuclear reactor.”
The Columbus Dispatch

From the Inside Flap

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and gas lanterns—both of which contain small amounts of radioactive material—and following blueprints he found in an outdated physics textbook, David cobbled together a crude device that threw off toxic levels of radiation.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.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 209 pages
  • Publisher: Villard (January 11, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0812966600
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812966602
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (51 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #162,864 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

47 of 48 people found the following review helpful By Salvatore F. Russo on March 9, 2007
Format: Paperback
I found it fascinating to read about the exploits of David Hahn and his ability to acquire and experiment with radioactive materials. Ken Silverstein has done a good job of including pertinent scientific background with the personal story of David.

My main criticism is that there are several errors in the technical chemistry provided in the book: For example, vinegar is 5% acetic acid (not 30%). Canthaxanthin is not a steroid. Electromotive force creates centrifugal force which then allows for the separation of U-235 and U-238. The combined number of protons and neutrons in a nucleus is called the mass number. When David used a charcoal grill inside the shed, the chief hazard was carbon monoxide (not carbon dioxide). Tyrosine is an amino acid (not an enzyme). Carboxylic acid refers to a class of compounds. Cesium-137 undergoes beta decay (not gamma ray emission). Also, the author confuses volatility with reactivity. It is unfortunate that the text was not reviewed by a chemist who could have pointed out these errors prior to publication.
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87 of 94 people found the following review helpful By Bernard K. Skoch on April 5, 2007
Format: Paperback
I have no quarrel with anti-nuclear books or thoughts, but this book presents itself as "The frightening true story of a whiz kid and his homemade nuclear reactor." It's not.

The author spends far too much time criticizing nuclear power and oddly enough, the Boy Scouts, and far too little on the actual incident that led to the story.

Silverstein's anti-nuclear slant is obvious. Chapter 2 (sarcastically titled "From the Radium Craze to the Soaring Sixties: Science Conquers All") is a criticism of all things nuclear, including Hiroshima, the Atomic Energy Commission, using nuclear energy to generate electricity, and the Cold War.

Writing about the Boy Scouts' "Atomic Energy" merit badge booklet, he says "Such was the pronuke slant of the pamphlet that it...was authored by a group of nuclear-power advocates." (Who else would the Boy Scouts ask to write it?) He continued "The Boy Scouts systematically whitewashed the many problems encountered by nuclear power."

Silverstein devotes nearly a full chapter to criticizing the Boy Scouts as an insitution. He writes "The Boy Scouts have always claimed to be apolitical, but the group has had a decidedly right wing character." He devotes a page to reciting a cynical poem that mocks the Boy Scout motto "Be Prepared" with lines like "Be prepared to hold your liquor pretty well" and "Keep those reefers hidden...when the Scoutmaster's around, for he will only insist that they be shared. Be prepared!" What's the point of that?
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115 of 126 people found the following review helpful By Mr. Scoutmaster on August 4, 2007
Format: Paperback
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 sit on the Board, 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.

As for Mr. Silverstein, he should keep his story factual, and keep his opinions about Scouting to the editorial pages.
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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful By G. Miller on April 22, 2005
Format: Paperback
Wow... That was my reaction to this book on a couple different levels. I first heard about his story when Mr. Silverstein was featured on NPR after his Harper's article appeared. I found the exploits of David Hahn fascinating and picked up the book when I spotted it. As others have mentioned here, the telling of David's story is very well written. Hahn's "Mad Scientist" persona and incredible disregard for the personal safety of

himself and others around him is alternatively very funny and scary. It's amazing that his family got to the point that they were "used it" the occasional explosion in the basement. It's also too bad that someone in David's life wasn't able to focus all of that brilliance.

However, also very funny (perhaps not in the way that Ken Silverstein intended) is the manner that the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) is portrayed in the book. The things that are said about the BSA are downright laughable. Per Silverstein, the BSA is a "dogmatic" right-wing political indoctrination machine that demands "absolute obedience" of its members. Such accusations (with no evidence cited) are heavily sprinkled thought the book. Furthermore, the author informs us that the founder of the Scouting movement, the UK's Robert Baden-Powell, formed Scouting so that the British Army and government would have a steady source of "A-1" manpower to keep the machine that was the British Empire alive and well. He even goes so far as to imply that Baden-Powell was a Nazi sympathizer before WW2. Later on we read about an un-holy conspiracy between the Atomic Energy Commission, the BSA, and Walt Disney (!!!) to peddle nuclear power to the masses. Wow...
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