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Following the disturbing trail of a boy who became a nuclear menace

The Radioactive Boy Scout: The True Story of a Boy and His Backyard Nuclear Reactor, By Ken Silverstein, Random House, 209 pp., $22.95

At 15, David Hahn couldn't get enough of science. Growing up in suburban Detroit, he made his own moonshine, tanning lotion, and fireworks. Yet over a period of years, he gave little thought to his safety or that of the community in which he lived. That failing now haunts his adult life.

After an explosion of red phosphorus rocked the house David shared with his father, Ken, and impaired David's vision for a year, he was barred from conducting experiments at home. But Ken never told his ex-wife, Patty, David's mother, about the accident. And the boy took over a potting shed in his mother's backyard.

David plunged into building a nuclear breeder reactor in the shed, a mission that put thousands of people at risk. Months later, in June 1995, federal workers in protective suits shut down his lab and buried it at a radioactive dumpsite.

"The Radioactive Boy Scout: The True Story of a Boy and His Backyard Nuclear Reactor" is a compelling tale rich in family dysfunction about a junior scientist run amok.

After David's Geiger counter registered radiation five doors down the block, he got scared and shut down the crude device he had cobbled together.

Fortunately, the police, searching for a tire thief, approached David in his parked car late one night and found the storehouse of radioactive and explosive materials in his trunk. That discovery led to the federal government's involvement. The teenager's aim in constructing a reactor was to fulfill requirements for an atomic-energy merit badge from the Boy Scouts and make a splash in the world of science.

How did David get so far? Why didn't anyone recognize the danger he posed? Author Ken Silverstein, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, largely blames David's parents, who split up when David was 9 and were too distracted by their own lives to pay attention to him.

His teachers didn't take him seriously either. David was so obsessed with science that many people steered clear of him. At dinner at his girlfriend's house, he spent the entire meal discussing the chemical composition of roast beef and beef Stroganoff. "I couldn't get him to shut up," the girl told Silverstein. Some friends were scared by the boy's talk of his experiments but never told an adult. David obtained key information about nuclear reactor design simply by asking government officials.

Silverstein also takes issue with the rosy picture of nuclear power offered in the literature that David surrounded himself with, especially the boy's bible, "The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments," published in 1960.

David had little trouble procuring radioactive materials. Posing as a physics teacher, the teenager wrote letters rife with misspellings and bad grammar to federal agencies. He corresponded with a scientist at the Department of Energy. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission told him what commercial products contained radioactive materials. This was his shopping list.

The year after the Environmental Protection Agency dismantled his radioactive lab, David joined the Navy. Dubbed the Nuclear Kid by his shipmates, David had hoped to further his atomic energy education in the Navy, but officers wouldn't let him near the nukes, and he was barred from entering an engineering training program. At one point David was going to be tested to see how much radiation he had been exposed to, but he backed out because he was fearful of what he might learn.

One can't help but wonder: What if David's parents and teachers had seen not just his peculiarities but also his promise? What if the government officials with whom he corresponded had questioned what he was doing? Could the boy's passion for science have been put to better use?

In this post-Columbine and 9/11 era, thorny questions come to mind. Is it as easy now as it was in 1995 to assemble the building blocks for a nuclear reactor? Should the responsibility for thwarting dangerous ambitions fall on the government, or on every one of us who might shake our heads at a teenager with a wild look on his face whose knowledge of science far exceeds our own?

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