Archive for January, 2010

The Radioactive Boy Scout (part 4)

January 13, 2010

Tales from the Nuclear Age:

 Copyright © 2010 by Charles Glassmire

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Jan. 13, 2010

 The Radioactive Boy Scout (part 4)*

           David was fissioning Uranium and Thorium in the makeshift “reactor” core he built in his mother’s potting shed in the back yard. As the radioactivity built up, one neighbor lady said she saw a “blue glow” at night coming from the shed. David could now detect rather high gamma levels even five houses down the street from his mother’s house. This indicated the whole nearby neighborhood was being irradiated. (Energetic gamma rays are not stopped by the thin walls of suburban construction.) David began to worry that he had

          “…too much radioactive stuff in one place…”

          So he unwrapped the duct tape and took the “reactor” apart, cube by cube. Thorium pellets went into a shoebox which he stashed in his mother’s house. The Americium and Radium remained in the shed. But where to put the rest? It was very radioactive and contaminated with fission products. His stepmother was now alerted by the prior explosion, and would throw away his stuff if he took it all back to his father’s house. So everything remaining, including some contaminated Thorium, went into the trunk of his Pontiac.

          Early on a Wednesday morning of August 31, 1994, at about 2:40 a.m. the Clinton police received a call that someone was stealing tires on the street. Arriving on the scene, in the darkness they found David Hahn parked on a side street, apparently loitering near his Pontiac. He told them he was waiting to meet a friend!

          Perhaps a little doubtful, the police Sergeant began to search the Pontiac. In the trunk he found fifty foil wrapped cubes of suspicious gray powder, cylindrical metal pieces, mercury switches, a disassembled clock face, lantern mantles, vacuum tubes, fireworks, two pipes with exploded holes in them, and some unidentified chemicals, some of which later proved to be strong acids. In addition, there was a rather large toolbox which was padlocked and sealed around the edges with Duct tape. David wasn’t telling the police much, but he did warn them the toolbox was radioactive, and they shouldn’t open it.

          The Sergeant called for backup and David was arrested. The police suspected the toolbox might contain an atomic bomb. David’s Pontiac was towed to the police station. When the Captain of Police came on duty at 6:30 a.m. he found a vehicle sitting in the station parking lot which was suspected of involvement in a crime and which might also contain an Atomic Bomb! The Michigan State Police Bomb squad was summoned to search the car, and the State Health Department was asked to supply assistance in surveying the radiation problem.

          After a PHS search, the toolbox revealed very radioactive substances, including Thorium and Americium, and other radionuclides at a level far above that “found in nature, at least not in Michigan…”  This resulted in an automatic activation of the Federal Radiological Emergency Response Plan. Notified agencies now included the FBI, Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

          David was not communicating. He gave his father’s address as his residence, and did not mention his mother’s house or the potting shed. Months later, on Thanksgiving Day he was interviewed by a state Radiological Official, who seemed to make some headway with David’s silent exterior. He said he was working on a scout merit badge, and tried to make Thorium fission to produce energy useful to the country. He finally admitted there was another laboratory at his mother’s in the potting shed.

          By this time Ken and his wife were rather frantic, and called to alert Patty at Golf Manor. Patty was terrified that her house would be condemned or confiscated by the authorities. She immediately went to the potting shed and ransacked the shed, gathering up most of the material there, including things like neutron guns, radium vials and Thorium pellets. She disposed of this radioactive debris in a still unknown way. It was never located again, and the nighttime blue glow went away from the shed.

          Three days later, on November 29, a survey team arrived from the State Department of Health. They found milk crates, acid in jars, Pyrex cups and other materials contaminated with “excessive levels” of radioactivity and scattered around the shed. One vegetable can registered a level 1,000 times higher than natural background radiation. The team didn’t know that the radioactive horse had already mostly left the barn.  The team sealed the shed and asked the Federal Government for assistance.

          The NRC quickly backed away. David was not a licensee and thus not in their jurisdiction. Try the EPA Emergency Response and Enforcement Branch. The State told the EPA that the potting shed “is beyond our authority or resources to oversee…”  So, five months after David had been stopped, on January 25, 1995, The EPA team arrived and surveyed the shed. Their report noted a possible” actual or potential exposure to nearby human population, animals or food chain…” and wind or rain or fire could cause “contaminants to migrate or be released…”

          A Superfund Emergency cleanup was initiated June 26 to 28. For three days white suited men walked over flower beds and lawns of the neighbors, while they methodically destroyed the potting shed. Cutting the shed into pieces, they packed the remains in 50 gallon drums marked with the magenta and yellow radiation symbol. The remains were ultimately trucked to Utah’s Great Salt Lake desert and buried in a radioactive debris dump facility run by Envirocare, a government contractor.

          After his laboratory was destroyed, David became severely depressed. Ken and Cathy were at a loss. They told David he had to enroll in Community College. His old high school classmates were calling him “Radioactive Boy” when they passed him on the street. David did not do well, and spent days in bed missing classes. Many nights he drove circles around and around the block in his Pontiac. His lifework obsession was gone. Finally, Ken and Cathy gave him an ultimatum: enter the armed forces or move out of the house.

          Recruiters came to the house and he signed up with the U.S. Navy. After Boot Camp he was stationed on the USS Enterprise (a nuclear carrier) as a recruit Seaman. He polished brass and swabbed decks until his time was served. Perhaps seeing no other future he then reenlisted in the US Marine Corps.

          Tragically, David’s mother, Patty, subsequently committed suicide. Only Michael was left in the house with five cats. After David’s discharge, in January of 2007, David moved to a small apartment back in Clinton. He was now 31 years of age.

          On August 4, 2007 the Fox News website carried this item: “[David Hahn] has been charged with stealing 16 smoke detectors from his apartment building. Police say it was a possible effort to experiment with radioactive materials. He was being held on a $5,000 bond in the Macomb County Jail after arraignment… Investigators say Hahn was arrested after a maintenance worker saw him stealing a smoke detector from a ceiling in an apartment complex where he lived.”

          David’s earlier 1994 brush with the law had been expunged from the record, although the Clinton police had a long memory. The apartment complex was evacuated. The FBI was alerted. Once again the State Police Bomb Squad was called, searched his apartment, and found fifteen more smoke detectors. No other hazardous materials were reported. He pleaded guilty to Building Larceny at the Circuit Court hearing. Authorities were alarmed at his facial sores, possibly due to radiation exposure. The Prosecutor recommended the larceny charge be dismissed; he was given 90 days for attempted larceny, and his sentence would be delayed six months pending his treatment for radiation exposure.

            David was not concerned about his radiation risk. He told investigators:

          “I’ve still got time. I don’t believe I took more than five years off of my life…”

*Many of these details of David’s experience appeared in an article in the November 1998 issue of Harper’s Magazine by author Ken Silverstein.

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          (Author’s note: I have spent a number of years working with young adults on the Autistic Spectrum. It is interesting to me that this case seems to express very familiar symptoms of high-functioning Asperger’s Syndrome; a form of Autism. While many investigators have puzzled over the seeming illogical behaviors expressed by this young man, there are some very familiar actions in his story, well known to those dealing with Autistic young adults.

          Subject exhibited a passionate obsession, in this case, with the collection of all the elements on the Periodic Table, a refusal to abandon this obsession in the face of social prohibitions, a lack of social conscience/ethics in pursuing his obsession (pretending to be a physics teacher, using other names etc.), lack of communication skills in a social situation, his high ability to function when pursuing his science interest contrasted with an overall terrible student performance, expression of a mental age and common sense of a much younger child than his physical years (e.g. storing radioactive Thorium in a shoebox), severe difficulty with spelling and reading outside of his obsession, compulsive repetitive behaviors when depressed- (riding around and around the block in his car), lack of concern for his own physical well being, and little recognition of the danger to others (hiding Thorium in his mother’s house – theory of mind issues),  etc.

          These all seem to me to make a very familiar pattern of behaviors which I have often observed in Asperger’s cases. A proper diagnosis might entitle David to government disability support. At this point we will leave David’s Tale from the Nuclear Age and we wish him happiness in his future life.  Stay tuned for more Tales).

  (to be continued…)

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The Radioactive Boy Scout (part 3)

January 2, 2010

Tales from the Nuclear Age:

Copyright © 2009 Charles Glassmire

_________________________________________________________________

Jan. 2, 2010

 The Radioactive Boy Scout (part 3)

       David Hahn was collecting Radium. He was gathering old clocks and watches by visiting junk stores and antique shops, scraping off the radium paint from the dials (it made the watch dials glow in the darkness) and saving the tiny chips in plastic pill bottles. His Americium Neutron Gun was not powerful enough to change Thorium 232, (which he extracted from old lantern mantles,) into fissionable Uranium 233. Radium was a more powerful irradiator. You see, he needed Uranium to complete his dream of building a Breeder Reactor in his mother’s back yard. Then he could make all the elements in the periodic table.

      So on this late afternoon, David was driving his Pontiac through Clinton Township near Detroit, in order to visit his girl, Heather. Suddenly his Geiger counter on the dash sounded an alarm for dangerously high levels of radiation. He was driving past a small shop called Gloria’s Resale Boutique/Antique. Oblivious to any danger, he quickly parked the car and dashed into the shop, Geiger counter in hand.

      A puzzled attendant watched a teen-ager rush into his store with a wildly clicking instrument in hand, and quickly began waving the instrument along the shelves of the store. The young man slowly zeroed in to an antique table top clock in the rear of the shop. It had big glowing green hands and green numerals on the face. In the dimness at the rear of the shop, David saw a faint luminescence. He got excited and inquired about the price. It was very expensive. Gloria, the shop owner, wasn’t working that afternoon. Her telephone rang at home, and the clerk explained a polite young man wanted to know if she would reduce the price for the old mantle clock. She sold the clock to David for ten dollars.

      David rushed his precious find back to the potting shed; all thoughts of Heather vanished from his mind. He knew the radiation levels he was seeing couldn’t come from the simple painted clock face. There was something else involved. Something bigger.

      Carefully, he slowly opened the back of the clock and began to inspect the apparatus. There, hidden in a niche of the clockworks, he saw a small glass vial, which glowed rather brightly in the darkness. A kindly clockmaker, many years ago, had left a vial of Radium in the clock, so that the new owner could retouch the hands and face when the painted dial had lost its strength. The clock contained a full vial of Radium paint!

      David was ecstatic. He went back to Gloria’s and left her a note to the effect, if she received another “luminus” clock, he would pay any “some” of money to purchase another one.

      David concentrated the Radium, mixing the vial contents with his paint chips and heating the mix with Barium Sulfate. Evaporating the liquid, he now had a concentration which, unknown to him, was very dangerous. He put the new crystals into another lead brick Neutron Gun. Now when he bombarded the Thorium, it became “quite radioactive”. But the Uranium didn’t budge.

      One scientist helpfully explained that Uranium needed slower, thermal neutrons. David could have used water to moderate the speed of the particles, but Tritium was a more interesting moderator. It was used to boost the power of nuclear bombs to enhance the chain reaction. Tritium was used in glow-in-the-dark gun sights and archery bow sights. We can guess what happened next.

      David began purchasing the sights from sporting goods stores and mail order catalogs. He would remove the tiny amount of waxy substance containing the Tritium, then send the sight back to the store to exchange for a “good” one, using several false names. Finally he had enough to smear on the front of his new neutron gun. He now could bombard the Uranium samples with thermal neutrons; the U235 began fissioning. Slowly the pile of U0dust became more and more radioactive and the Geiger counter increased readings by the day. The inventory of new radioisotope fission products accumulated in the pile and sometimes into the air.

      Now David began to build the core of his Breeder Reactor. He didn’t have enough Uranium for a real critical chain reaction, but he wanted the radioisotopes to begin to interact with each other, to make something transform into something else. Oblivious to his own safety, he began mixing the Radium, paint chips and Thorium together with Aluminum and Beryllium powder wrapped in foil. He surrounded this mix with Thorium and UO2  wrapped in foil cubes, and stacked these in a checkerboard pattern he had seen in a college textbook. The whole “core” was held together with Duct tape. Now when he measured his “Breeder Reactor” with his Geiger counter, he was sometimes pegging the needle. He later said it became “…radioactive as heck.”

      One evening, David was returning from Heathers at a very late hour. He lazily coasted the Pontiac down his street, perhaps thinking of the next step in his experiments. Suddenly the Geiger counter went off, alerting to high gamma levels. David stopped the car, puzzled. He was still five houses away, down the street from his mother’s house, and still farther from the potting shed in her back yard.  Could it be that the instrument was signaling very high levels of radiation throughout the entire neighborhood? …

 (to be continued…)