Fission for small fry

6th August 2004 at 01:00
The potentially explosive tale of a young loner with a curious hobby has one glowing omission for Victoria Neumark

The Radioactive Boy Scout: the true story of a boy and his backyard nuclear reactor. By Ken Silverstein. Fourth Estate pound;12

In 1995, officials from the Environmental Protection Agency of the United States raided a back garden in suburban Detroit. Men in white moon suits sawed up a garden shed, dug up soil and raked the lawn, putting all the debris in large black drums marked with yellow signs warning of radioactivity. Just what was going on?

For three days the men worked away, then disappeared, but not before all the neighbours knew that dorky young David Hahn, son of the dysfunctional couple who owned the house with the empty swimming pool, was in trouble.

David, it turned out, had been trying to build a nuclear reactor in his spare time from school and Boy Scouts.

At the time of the raid, David was 17. He was on the point of joining the elite Eagle Scouts, a feat narrowly missed by his father, who keenly promoted David's scouting involvement. Shuttling between the homes of his distant father and drunken mother, David had recently been chucked by his surprisingly dishy girlfriend and was on the borderline of failure at school. He had few friends but held down several part-time jobs and maintained a huge correspondence with journals, manufacturers, merchants, academics and monitoring bodies concerned with atomic physics and chemistry.

For several years, he had been obsessively pursuing his interests in atomic energy, collecting, refining, purifying, isolating and building the chemical components needed to make atoms split and release their energy.

Perhaps even more strangely, neither set of parents had noticed.

Ken Silverstein, who first reported on the Hahn case for Harper's Magazine, makes a good stab at getting into the mind of a young lad who found collecting hundreds of old alarm clocks to scrape off the radium-laden paint a better way of passing the summer holidays than swimming with the gang, but even his practised journalistic phrases fall short. He goes into the minute details of home chemistry, frequently drawing on David's prime inspiration, Robert Brent's The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments (1960), a merry celebration of the joys to be had in creating stinks and bangs with everyday home ingredients.

He sets David's love affair with atomic fission in the context of conservative America's love affair with the atom. And he makes much of the piquant contrast between the lonely geek tinkering with the building blocks of matter, and conformist middle-class America. But still, as with so many real-life dramas, the core of the matter seems to elude him.

For the education-oriented reader, David's constant bedroom explosions, his years of working unprotected with radioactive substances, his failure to communicate with adults and his inability to set his experiences in a wider context such as safety, politics or his own survival spell out "autistic spectrum" in radioactively glowing letters. Highly intelligent in his own limited area, with no boundaries imposed by fear of sanctions and no understanding of how peculiar his interests seemed to his peers, though hurt by their rejection, David seems a poster boy for the difficulties social-communicative disorders inflict.

Though David may demonstrate limited empathy, Silverstein's own attempts at authorial empathy go little deeper and the book hovers on the edge of describing a freak show.

What saves it is a fascinating exploration, via attempts at recreating David's experiments, of how simple and how difficult the atomic energy business really is. The history of nuclear power plants, including the doomed attempts to make safe-breeder reactors, is discussed alongside the boy scout's attempts to develop his own sources of nuclear fuel and detonators from ore samples, old gas lamp mantles, smoke detector strips and gun sights, which contain respectively uranium, thorium, americium and tritium. The (highly radioactive) plutonium from electrostatic dynamo brushes had too quick a half-life.

It was the logical extension of the cheery DIY of The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments, yet David Hahn's experience was not so very different from that of national atomic energy authorities: tattered lead-lined suit, cobwebby potting shed, alarming rise in Geiger activity and all, He failed to take adequate precautions: so did the US and UK governments, over radioactive fires. His premises were not suitable: nor were the early government facilities sited near downtown Detroit. He panicked and acted inappropriately when success built up too quickly: one notable US atomic disaster occurred when a key worker was chatting on the control room telephone and ignored the supervisor's order to "scram" (acronym for "safety control rod axe man", the emergency way to drop a rod of inert cadmium into a fast-building chain reaction).

Surely, the most remarkable thing about the radioactive boy scout is that his values do not present a remarkable contrast with those of self-reliant, conformist US suburbia: where else but in God's own country would you try to build your own atomic reactor?

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