Chernobyl, Michigan? 

A crack investigative reporter reveals how one teenager built a nuclear reactor in his backyard

A crack investigative reporter reveals how one teenager built a nuclear reactor in his backyard

Sixteen-year-old David Hahn didn't set out to endanger the health of over 40,000 of his fellow citizens. The scary thing, as reported by Ken Silverstein in The Radioactive Boy Scout: The True Story of a Boy and His Backyard Nuclear Reactor (Random House, 240 pp., $22.95), is that Hahn accomplished this unintended consequence through nothing more than old-fashioned persistence and hard work, acquiring and producing highly radioactive material completely beneath the radar of any adults, let alone any government agency. In 1994, in a shed behind his mother's house, Hahn built a crude nuclear breeder reactor that released toxic levels of radiation—the shed was ultimately classified as a Superfund site—without coming close to being discovered, despite the fact that he didn't try very hard to conceal his activities.

Can you say "cautionary tale"? Ken Silverstein, one of America's best-known investigative reporters, tells this true story of a broken family and a precocious youth as a wake-up call to all parents who think their child is too smart to do something so dumb. David Hahn's distracted parents knew about his interests and generally tolerated them, figuring that he couldn't get into any real trouble pursuing an academic interest like science, and not knowing enough about the subject to understand what he was up to. Hahn's teachers, on the other hand, didn't believe he was bright enough to be doing what he claimed, quite truthfully, to be doing. (Like many gifted children, Hahn was a terrible student.) And when Hahn queried government agencies for scientific information, he was careful either to conceal his identity or to ask for only small pieces of the puzzle at a time. At each juncture the grown-ups let him go, functioning as perfect enablers for an inquisitive, narrowly brilliant mind. As Silverstein notes, "No one concluded that he had talents that should be harnessed or that with a little more encouragement and guidance he might end up at MIT."

Despite the early revelation of what happens to the family potting shed, the book is suspenseful. We wonder how David put the pieces of the puzzle together, how he managed to get his hands on such dangerous materials, how he was found out and where he is today. The answers to these questions will keep readers shaking their heads in amazement. The book is not without fault, however: It began as an article in Harper's, and Silverstein struggles to fluff it out past 200 pages. Also, Silverstein is decidedly against nuclear power, unnecessarily injecting opinion into an otherwise strictly factual account. Still, what he reveals about the Boy Scouts, radioactivity and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is both entertaining and enlightening. And, chances are, readers of a certain age will be inspired to start asking their teenagers what they're learning in chemistry class.

—Chris Scott


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