David Hahn became well known for his attempt to build a nuclear reactor in 1994 at the age of 17, after receiving his a merit badge for nuclear energy in the boy scouts. What he ended up building wasn’t really a “reactor” but more of a combination of an beryllium isotopic neutron source and a “breeder blanket” of material which it irradiated. It never achieved a chain reaction, but it did cause a lot of concern and force officials to step in and clean up his backyard shed. He created this from a combination of the tiny americium-241 sources in smoke detectors, radium paint from old clocks, thorium from lantern mantles and just about anything else he could get his hands on.
Hahn slipped into obscurity after the radioactive material was confiscated and he went off to join the US Navy. He was assigned to a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, but just as an ordinary seaman, not in any way involving the reactor. Eventually he left the service, and that was basically that for Hahn…
Well, until recently. Hahn was arrested back in August when a maintenance person saw him stealing a smoke detector from his apartment complex. Police charged him with larceny after they found an additional sixteen smoke detectors in his apartment. He was held on $5000 bail and plead guilty, which got him a sentence of 90 days in prison.
It sure seems like he was back to his old tricks, but one would think by now he’d have realized you can’t build a reactor out of smoke detectors. Or at least, you can’t out of sixteen. Although Am-241 is fissile, and could be a component of the reactor fuel, the amount in a smoke detector is so small that you would need millions or possibly billions to get enough material for a reactor. What Hahn built his first time was a rather nasty hodgepodge of materials. Although the neutron flux was small, radium paint is very toxic to begin with and the neutron bombardment of material that is already radioactive certainly did not help.
It begs the question of what the hell he though he was doing. One would think that from his early experience he would have learned that there’s no use in trying to build a reactor out of smoke detector sources and that one can get into a rather large amount of trouble trying to do so. At least based on reports, what he had was far from what you would need to even start a reactor, and in and of itself not especially dangerous.
Hahn’s mug shot shows his face to be very obviously covered with sores. News reports have said that officials suspected this was from radiation exposure, but Hahn refused to be examined by doctors for possible radiation poisoning. I’m VERY skeptical of this. It seems more likely to me this was just some off-hand speculation, either by the media or police.
Radiation poisoning does not usually cause such sores. It can cause skin problems, in high localized doses, but more common symptoms are hair loss, nausea, fatigue, infections, anemia and some other issues. But in any case, those would not be caused by smoke detector sources. Unless Hahn had acquired much larger and more powerful radioisotopes, he would not show acute signs of radiation exposure. None of the reports mention anything beyond the smoke detectors. The only way such sores might come from radioactive sources would be if a high energy particle emitter was held against the skin for long periods of time, thus resulting in small burns.
More likely: To me, this looks a lot more like a methamphetamine problem. Some of the news reports eluded to Hahn having had drug problems and the stealing of smoke detectors does not sound like the actions of a healthy mind. Meth users commonly have skin sores and their restlessness and feelings of “Meth Bugs” – the illusion of bugs or something else crawling under the skin – can lead to picking at one’s face or body. This is speculation, of course, but I highly suspect this may be the cause and it seems much more likely than radiation.
Here are some examples:
One thing I can say is that it’s too bad to see Mr. Hahn’s life go this way. The guy was is obviously pretty smart or at least was at one point. Hahn’s enthusiasm for nuclear energy is great, but entirely misplaced. He should consider advocating for an actual, sealed, tested, working reactor to be built, rather than take it into his own hands to do so out of smoke detectors.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, November 21st, 2007 at 5:56 pm and is filed under Bad Science, Nuclear. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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