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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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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.
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Top customer reviews
With insufficient parental connections and guidance, David Hahn's motivators became twisted. One of his motivators was The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments, a book from the cold war era for children that contained an un-housebroken evangelical fervour for science, as well as enough technical information to put The Anarchist's Cookbook to shame. "Following the detailed instructions in the Golden Book, David set up a laboratory at his father's house," (pg 17). The Golden Book was his first step to approach science. However, this book gave "simple" instruction in performing chemical reactions without giving serious warnings about how dangerous the reactions could be. Because of the great success of these first experiments, "he ignored the warnings in the textbook that said that terrible accidents" (pg 25). David was caring out these dangerous experiments as an adolescent. At this age he really didn't know right from wrong. If someone was there to guide him, teach him the appropriate approach to science, and point out the severities of the reactions that he conducted, all risks could be prevented.
Last and most importantly, the book creates a picture of adolescent rebellion. Because of the lack of attention from his parents and the underestimation from others, he seemed to want to express himself forcefully, a teenage ideology. Instead of supporting David's dream of collecting a sample of every element, his physic teacher, Ken Gherardini, ironically said: "I don't know about you, but my dream at that age was to buy a car," (pg 96). Under such circumstances, kids intensely aspire to accomplish things that adults don't think they can do. From a psychological and social perspective, David's behavior is explained within the context of dysfunctional family dynamics, adolescent rebellion, and search for identity. We can see how and why the he became who he became, and did what he did. "Science was something that I could master. Finally, there was something that I had control over," (pg 20). Science was his perfect cover, where he could control everything, where he could see his own ability, and where he could express his talent.
The story of David Hahn, minus the anti-scout and anti-nuclear slant, was good. It shows that the current eduction system does not look for a student that excels in one particular area, but teach to the "average" student.